In a recent Financial Times article, Edward Luce explained the basis of Google’s data dominance and the advantages it has for society as a whole.
The idea is that we consumers get millions of things for free in exchange for our behaviour is tracked is true and I believe that Edward has got this right. He talks about how it is important that Google has a monopoly over what they do as it allows them to truly innovate. If they had a competitor close to them, then they would have to drop much of their expensive R&D programmes in order to cement their place.
Although to an extent this is true, what it does not take into account is that there are other aspects to being a monopoly that can have significant negative effects in this sense. Although it is true that Google have the mantra of ‘don’t be evil’ the reality is that much of what they have done recently has had people questioning this and especially when you look at how they are dealing with much of their customer's data, it is questionable. In 2014 Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, even said that the company had 'outgrown' the phrase.
The problem is simply that they have a huge amount of power both in terms of the data they hold and how they provide access to the internet. A prime example being the 5 minutes on August 6 2013 when internet traffic fell by 40% as the Google servers went down. They also have a significant lobbying arm, with the FTC making initial claims in a leaked report that Google then persuaded the FTC to distance itself from.
The problem is that Google is unprecedented in what is does. It has given consumers a huge amount, seemingly for free, whilst only asking for data in return. If you are looking at it in a traditional sense, it is a firm win for the consumer. However, in the current landscape this is far less clear cut.
We are yet to have a clear framework created around data collection, storage and use, meaning that the most powerful companies in this space are going to be the ones who are setting the agenda going forward. The laws that are set down today are going to be the same ones (or at least the foundations of) all future data legislation. Having this being constructed at a time when one company has such massive political sway could lead to considerable problems in the future as it may be focussed on their needs as a company, rather than the needs of society as a whole.
It is purely speculation, but we have seen how much damage mishandled data can have in the hands of the people we are meant to trust the most; our governments. Both the UK and US governments have been shown to have misunderstood the general feeling of their populations regarding how their data is used, so they will likely be turning to companies who deal with data to help draft these laws.
As Edward Luce points out ‘We are not Big Data’s customers but its product’, which needs to be understood both in the way that it provides us with many overwhelmingly positive things, but that the more we get from it, the more it gets from us. This boils down to knowing where the tipping point is in this scenario, which is going to be something that cannot be done as a collective. It will be down to governments and the people who work with them to create data legislation, which is more than likely to be the very companies who hold the most data. If we have internet giants who can powerfully lobby within this context, then the chances are that this will be done to help their interests rather than to help society as a whole.
At present, this is simply a hypothetical, but it is easy to see how it could come about. We are still very much in the infancy of our overall data usage and gathering, but it is going to increase in the future which will require significant monitoring and legislation to make sure it is done properly. Whether it is therefore a good idea to have one or two companies with huge political power at the centre of this is questionable, especially when they seem to hold so much political power already.