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Why power matters in the digital world

LiveMint logoLiveMint 13-09-2017 Livemint

In 1994, Mitchell Kapor, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, summed up the idealism that pervaded the dawn of the consumer internet era: “The first-order issue ought to be: What are we shooting for as a society? How are we conceiving of this great project that we are engaged in? My hope is that we reach a consensus for the system to be open, inclusive, egalitarian, and decentralized...”. The fundamental assumptions underlying this idealism—the inherent egalitarianism of the internet, its potential to upend pre-digital political, economic and social hierarchies—continue to shape public debates.

Last week, the Supreme Court directed Facebook and WhatsApp to file affidavits stating what user data they shared with third parties. Legal challenges to the Aadhaar programme are pending. Both are part of the broader privacy debate that will now be informed by the Supreme Court’s landmark decision reading the right to privacy as a fundamental right. Net neutrality remains a perennial issue in India, the US and elsewhere. European Union courts continue to subject tech giants to withering antitrust scrutiny. There are multiple principles at stake here: individual rights, free market functioning and fair competition, among others. But they are ultimately aspects of the central issue Kapor raised: power and its distribution.

In a new Foreign Affairs essay, “The False Prophecy Of Hyperconnection”, historian Niall Ferguson has analysed this within the framework of network theory. Any social network consists of nodes (individuals) connected by edges (relationships). Not all nodes are equal; “Some nodes have a higher ‘degree’, meaning that they have more edges, and some have higher ‘betweenness centrality’, meaning that they act as the busy junctions through which a lot of network traffic has to pass.”

Here’s the crux of it: giant social networks by nature are deeply inegalitarian because as networks expand, nodes gain edges exponentially based on the ones they already have. The upshot is “many more nodes with a very large number of edges and many more with very few edges than would be the case in a randomly generated network.” Instead of empowering, the internet is, in this reading, a force multiplier for inegalitarianism by virtue of increasing the ease of forming networks and increasing their size.

His argument is not unfounded. The findings of a 2011 University of Georgia study involving 200,000 participations carried out over six years match up with his thesis. More broadly, economic power and the ability to shape the socio-economic future has rarely been as concentrated as it is now in the hands of Silicon Valley’s digital evangelists. They are the prophets of the automation that will disrupt vast swathes of the economic landscape and millions of jobs in coming decades. They are also the central nodes in globe-spanning networks that grant them immense influence and petabytes of user data. And they are simultaneously the gatekeepers to those networks as the recent decisions by various tech companies to stop hosting radical right-wing content in the US show.

This firming of hierarchical power structures is not confined to the private sector. Open data initiatives are intended to flatten the power dynamic between governments and citizens. But all too often, such initiatives don’t work as well as they should. As Parijat Garg and Anchal Agarwal at The Ken have pointed out, successive Indian governments’ rhetoric here fails the sniff test. The United Progressive Alliance government was a formative member of the Open Government Partnership in 2011, but withdrew before it kicked off. The National Democratic Alliance government talked up the need to release raw data in a machine-readable format, but higher value data sets remain inaccessible to the public. Meanwhile, the government has access to more citizen data than ever before.

Ferguson’s pessimism is not the sum of it, of course. Economic disruption due to technological advances will also create unforeseen opportunities; doomsday warnings here fall prey to the lump of labour fallacy. And as we have seen time and again, being digitally connected allows citizens, who might individually be nodes with few edges to attain, a critical mass that enables them to hold governments and corporations to account. A lack of egalitarianism, in short, doesn’t mean there are no benefits for those lower down the power hierarchy.

However, as the recent focus on the deleterious effects of income and wealth disparity have shown, inequality can be an economic liability. Digital networks are a proxy for the digital economy of the future. The utopianism of Kapor and his ilk was never likely to survive the rigours of reality—but the importance of the dynamics of digital power are worth keeping in mind in policy debates.

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