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Regulation for us droids

LiveMint logoLiveMint 31-07-2017 Siddharth Pai

In an op-ed column in Mint last week, Nandan Nilekani wrote of the need for India to become a data democracy. Information is everything in the gig economy, and specifically, it is private information about each user that is of the most value. He also touched on another aspect about data that is often overlooked: how are these data generated in the first place? The firms we accuse of being oligarchs aren’t producing these data from thin air.

The “selfie” camera points straight at you and me as individual users of the internet. As more of our devices become palm-sized and track our every move, we have become the willing providers of these data. The launch of Apple’s iPhone 10 years ago began this data deluge, and many of us now carry a powerful computer in our pockets which tracks our every move, our every financial transaction, and our every personal interaction. We have become data droids.

The way that the internet giants use these data sometimes sends shivers down one’s spine. For instance, last month, Snapchat introduced a feature called Snap Map that allows for everyone on your “friends” list to track where you are at any given time. I do not use Snapchat actively, but my children do, and it was frightening for me to see what this feature was capable of. It didn’t take long for privacy advocates to raise concerns about bullying and stalking. Many Snapchat users moved to “Ghost Mode,” which turns off this feature.

Why should one have to become a “ghost” to continue living normally? Activists are clued into this, and are suggesting action at the grassroots level.

Tristan Harris, a former product manager at Google, has found currency with a TED talk and in a long interview with Wired magazine by seeking to explain how the large internet platforms vacuum us into their platforms and entice us to spend large amounts of time on them. We often feel, in retrospect, that we shouldn’t have.

Anyone who has logged onto Facebook or other social networking platform and then spent several precious minutes, or sometimes hours, of what should have otherwise been work or sleep time is aware of this phenomenon. Apart from regretting this wasted time, we have also unwittingly provided more of our personal data to these platforms, which is now their property to do with as they will.

Harris has launched a non-profit to stop tech companies from hijacking our minds. He is not the first to play a part here. There are apps now available to track our device usage, and warn us when we are exhibiting levels of use that suggest addiction. While such self-awareness is the first step in assuring privacy, Harris feels that the way that Apple, Facebook, Google, and other internet platforms design their user interfaces is the root cause which impacts how much time we spend on their devices or on their platforms.

Given that over 2 billion people are now influenced by what they see on their smart phones, it is little wonder that tech companies are spending untold millions of dollars on user design that hijacks our minds and sucks up our time—and consequently, our data. This is the real “design thinking”. Harris advocates for change in how these companies design these interfaces. 

As an aside, I had dwelled in an earlier column on how this first wave of design thinking seems to have passed by most information technology (IT) services companies. But the second wave is already here: the wave of natural language processing, which allows you to speak to a device in your natural voice, and get it to do your bidding. IT services firms are increasingly attempting to carve out a niche for themselves in this space, though it is difficult to see how they would be able to equal the work coming out of the likes of Amazon, Apple and Google in this space. The key then, would be for them to piggy-back off the innovations that the big firms are making in the consumer space, and then to record and replay these in their interactions with business enterprises, since digital adoption in the customer world leads the enterprise world by about two years.

The fact that data domination creates monopolies or oligopolies has not escaped the scrutiny of regulators, especially in Europe. The European Commission recently fined Google $2.7 billion for displaying results from its own online shopping tool in a preferential manner when compared to competitors. If Google chooses not to appeal the ruling, and instead complies, the sub-specialization of “Search Engine Optimization” consulting would find its task a lot easier than it does today, since it would no longer have to second-guess how internet search providers short-circuit their own search algorithms.

The European Commission has also signalled that it is data on private individuals that is the real competition currency of the future and that it may well look to regulate the way the big internet firms compete by collecting and using such private data. Its website already says: “Under EU law, personal data can only be gathered legally under strict conditions, for a legitimate purpose. Furthermore, persons or organisations which collect and manage your personal information must protect it from misuse and must respect certain rights of the data owners which are guaranteed by EU law”.

Meanwhile, the American attitude to competition seems to be heading the other way; probably small wonder, since most of the data oligarchs are American. In a related arena, the Federal Communications Commission under Ajit Pai is allowing net neutrality to die, which will only give more power to these oligarchs. 

We would do well by taking Europe’s lead when we frame our own “data democracy” laws.

Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has personally led over $20 billion in complex, first-of-a-kind outsourcing transactions.

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