Dangers of going digital

Thomas K Thomas | Updated on August 16, 2021

AI, ML collect loads of user data which can be misused

In a highly digitised world where individuals, machines, financial establishments, enterprises, and government agencies are being connected on a single network, protection of data has to be the single most important focus of policymakers.

Access to data is knowledge and knowledge is power. There are many players, both legitimate and unscrupulous ones, who want to lay their hands on this enormous power in order to either innovate to offer better services for everyone or to create havoc and make illegal profit for themselves.

Dipayan Ghosh in his book Terms of Disservice: How Silicon Valley is Destructive, published by Harper Business, highlights the dangers of the connected world we live in and offers practical ideas for using technology to create an open and accessible world that protects all consumers and civilians.

The book highlights some shocking examples of the dangers of unbridled rise of digital platforms including how Myanmar’s military and local Buddhists used Facebook to spread hate against Rohingyas and promote beatings, killings and rapes of the minority community, how YouTube promoted the radical right-wing ideas of Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil, how WhatsApp forwards have led to spread of fake news and mob lynchings in India and how a White supremacist used Facebook Live while he shot down people praying in a mosque in New Zealand.

Danger to democracy

The reaction of social media companies to the spread of disinformation on their platforms has not just been underwhelming but actively harmful to democracies. Ghosh blames the commercial nature of Silicon Valley that is causing the socio-political problems we see today. Since the dawn of the Internet age, we have revered it and the people at the forefront of the Internet businesses — Eric Schmidt, Travis Kalanick, Mark Zuckerberg and so on. But they were just opportunists operating in an unregulated space, he writes.

The viewpoint that has largely prevailed in the past three decades is that these consumer internet products are good for the world — Facebook connects everyone, Google indexes all knowledge and Amazon enables new markets — all for free. The book offers insights into how these firms are actually exploiting user data to make billions of dollars. The worry is that new technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning depend heavily on collecting user data.

Unfortunately, many users have not considered the potential negative payoffs that may occur in the future. They are happy in the present with using social media to connect with friends or buying groceries on e-commerce sites without worrying about the digital footprints they are leaving behind that can be potentially misused.

New social contract

Ghosh, who was a technology and economic policy advisor at the White House during the Obama years, proposes that there has to be a new social contract driven by regulation to ensure data protection and privacy for consumers. Europe, for example, is leading the way with General Data Protection Regulations.

However, Ghosh should have perhaps also delved into how citizens can be protected from the misuse of surveillance powers of the State. What happens when the government is both a player and a regulator? For instance, the proposed Personal Data Protection Bill formulated by Indian policymakers gives sweeping powers to the government to exempt itself from the protection guaranteed to citizens under the Bill.

By invoking the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India and the security of the state, the policymakers have ensured that it will have absolute control over consumer data without any judicial oversight.

Having a strong data protection law is important but it is also critical to bring a balance between the individual, the companies which hold and process our data, and the state.

Ghosh argues that the first goal of reform is to give users control over their data and in turn establish a right to privacy, which at present consumers do not have. He proposes a competition policy ranging from issuing targeted regulations that narrowly protect consumers from harm to actively breaking up the big tech companies as necessary for giving consumers power.

Although Ghosh has written the book in the context of the US digital economy, the book is relevant for all consumers who want to understand the business model that underpins the need for an open Internet governance framework.

Published on August 15, 2021

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