Last month, I attended a lecture at the University of Queensland on “data capitalism.” The argument put forward by Oliver Lane-Porter was that “Meta, Alphabet, and Amazon are some of the largest and most powerful firms in the global economy. Their size, value, and the wealth of their founders raise serious concerns for distributive justice. To address these concerns, as well as the threats these firms pose to political liberties, perhaps we need to change how data is ‘owned’.”
Basically, a few individuals make billions from personal data, while those providing the data have little power to monetise or even withhold their data. This clearly shows the inequality in power. Oliver focused on a proposed solution for the ownership of personal data, which is based on the principles underpinning the Rawlsian political economy of Property-Owning Democracy.
His solution would resemble how we organise superannuation funds. He suggested establishing data trust funds where people can deposit their personal information and select the one that would fit their requirements, depending on what they want to do with it, such as monetising it or fully protecting it.
It is good to discuss the issue of the imbalance between the few large internet companies and us, the ordinary people. However, I doubt if a solution like data trusts would work. The way I see it, going forward, the importance of big internet providers will decrease in percentage terms (their key driver is advertising revenue).
If we talk about other useful data, such as environmental, healthcare, education, and energy, as well as smart cities, the power of this data lies in depersonalised aggregation. This data is needed to run our increasingly complex society. Therefore, big data is an important tool to assist us in addressing the many issues we face.
However, we encounter another problem here. This approach could easily result in the “colonialisation” of the internet, as the use of data in this way will favour the culture, economy, policies, etc. of the Western world.
In order to address this, and for other autocratic political reasons, China has already delinked from the internet and is big enough to do its own thing (surveillance society). Russia, Iran, and North Korea are other examples of countries delinked from the internet. Most other countries or groups are not in favour of delinking, as they believe the positives outweigh the negatives of the internet. Those who have other reasons to delink don’t have the money or political power to do so.
In general, further splintering of the internet will continue for commercial and political reasons. However, this poses a threat to the benefits the internet offers, as mentioned above.
So, what are the solutions? In relation to data capitalism, I am following with interest the developments in Europe. The European Union has taken an internally leading role in addressing this issue. Since these big internet companies depend on a global market, the EU certainly holds some sway here. So, there is no quick and easy solution, but rather a slow process toward a more equal role between the big internet players and their users.
Regarding the decolonisation of the internet, we do see a greater awareness among all involved. However, the reality is that Western influence remains overpowering. Only when other countries and cultures develop will we overcome this problem. At the same time, developing nations and groups in their societies are using the internet for their own empowerment. So, there are two sides to this coin. Nevertheless, awareness and the search for more opportunities for equality between cultures and societies are growing. But again, there is no quick and easy solution, but rather a slow process.