Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Digital Magna Carta?

It may be said that the Digital Economy, also known as the New Economy or the Internet Economy, started in Silicon Valley, in California, during the 1990’s. The term was coined from the title of Don Tapscott's 1995 best-seller, The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence, one of first books to show how the Internet would change the way we do business.

One of the commonalities of all economic revolutions, whether the Industrial age, Colonialism, or the introduction of Banking, and thus modern Capitalism, is the disruption they cause, not only to economic patterns, but also to society at large; repercussions that reverberate for decades, sometimes even centuries. An example would be the economic revolution that occurred at the beginning of history, when humans moved from hunting/gathering to agriculture, leading to the establishment of towns and cities, the flourishing of language and literature, and the formation of a class of people much wealthier than the rest.

A common feature all these economic revolutions share is the transfer of assets from common ownership to private ownership. During the move to an agricultural society, land, which the hunters/gatherers considered common to all, became privatized. Without privatization of land, agriculture would not have been possible. During the Industrial revolution, resources needed for production, such as water, timber, and iron ore, became privatized, allowing profits from these resources to accumulate to industrialists or their share-owners.

The digital economy is privatizing information, specifically, personal information. In almost all cases, it is being gathered surreptitiously, stored on servers beyond our reach, for indeterminate periods of time, and sold to other companies (and more ominously, to police and other government authorities,) for profit. We know, for example, that Facebook can come up with a relatively good idea of who you are; what you read, your political inclinations, your sexuality, what you buy and what you watch; but most people have no idea how much personal data is being gathered. For example, Google is able to access, from smartphones, data about when you wake up, when you get into a car and every place you visit--and download all that information onto their servers, and sell that information to advertisers. Using algorithms, they are able to determine items you may buy: for example, stopping at a school every day signals interest in children’s or educational products; and at a hospital, medical or pharmaceutical products.

History has shown that invariably, developments of this sort lead to social backlash. The Magna Carta was essentially a revolt by the British Lords who owned (relatively) smaller amounts of land against the King, who exerted ownership rights over the entire country. The revolt against the Industrial Revolution led to the idea of Communism, whose central tenet is the common ownership of the means of production.

The revolt against the Digital Economy will center, naturally, around the ownership of personal information. Currently, ordinary people have not challenged the existing legal and political systems on this topic. Google, Amazon and Facebook, among others, have privatized personal data. They collect it from you at no cost, with relative secrecy, and for the profit of their shareholders. This privatization has led to enormous profits—Mark Zukerberg’s billions are a prime example.

This push-back is at its infancy. There have been calls for governmental regulation of Facebook, but given its wealth and power, and the lack of exposure of this issue, it remains to seen how far these calls will go. If history repeats itself, the future will hold a struggle where ordinary citizens will have to claw back their rights to own, or at least, fairly share, their personal information with extremely large, secretive and manipulative companies who are well on their way to create real-time, moving digital avatars of each one of us in their computers.

Mohan Ashtakala is the author of "The Yoga Zapper - A Novel," published by Books We Love. He lives in Calgary, Canada, with  his wife Anuradha, son Rishi ,daughter Gopi. He can be sometimes be spotted chanting mantra absent-mindedly in the city's parks.

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