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Friday, 31 January 2014

Privacy Law Meets The P2P Economy

The legal war against Big Data platforms has intensified recently, with Google on the sharp end of fines and court proceedings, and an Israeli legislative proposal that would require search engines to pay royalties on search results to the State for distribution amongst selected publishers.

But courts, regulators and the legislature are very slow trains in this fast-moving context. I worry that they are distracting us from the urgent and more productive quest for a pragmatic, humanistic solution to the root cause of the privacy problem: lack of control of our own data.

I've recently pointed to some key commercial and technological developments which can deliver that control, in a series of posts responding to Google's rather spooky 'computers vs people' meme. In essence, I've suggested that we can 'win the war' against computers for economic control of our data by transacting on peer-to-peer marketplaces, and by linking those marketplaces and our respective 'personal clouds' to form a wider 'personal data ecosystem' using the tools described in the recent Privacy by Design report.

That ecosystem will be increasingly complex, tightly coupled, dynamic and, above all, collaborative. So, as lawyers, we should be advising our respective clients to work together very closely to build a trust framework which ensures that users are readily able to understand and control how their data is being used, and that the operational and technological rules and processes are consistent with the legal rules governing the ecosystem and all its participants.

This is not 'niche' or happy clappy stuff. Designing the new economy can't be left to a lone 'data protection expert' or a pro bono team and some corporate social responsibility bods from UK plc who are merely trying 'to put something back'. It's got to be business as usual for lawyers and their clients across the board.

Interested in your thoughts.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A Google Tax Is Not The Answer

The task of enabling people to control the use of their data by Big Data platforms acquired a new urgency this month. 

The issue was perhaps highlighted most by Google CEO Eric Schmidt's recent assertions that "a race between computers and people" obliges humans to avoid jobs that machines can do. That's a somewhat disingenuous recommendation, because pushing people into a narrower and narrower range of 'creative' jobs enables the Big Data platforms like Google to continue their reliance on creative output (not to mention the data generated by user participation) to attract the vast advertising revenues needed to build ever smarter machines. Indeed, Jaron Lanier has warned that many among the Silicon Valley elite believe this process will end in the The Singularity and human extinction. They even have a university dedicated to achieving it, although in fairness I see that one of its directors posted this yesterday in favour of "social causes" and "giving back to the world" in answer to recent criticisms of Silicon Valley's elitist attitude.

Meanwhile, publishers have plumbed new depths in their own quest to regain those same advertising revenues which Google et al. effectively stole from under their noses. Their latest effort involves persuading Israeli legislators to attempt to pass a "Google Tax Law" that would require search engines to pay royalties to the state based on the number of times that eligible content is 'clicked' on. A committee would then divide the spoils amongst eligible 'content creators'. But this does not include users whose participatioin online is critical to the ecosystem. To be eligible to share in the tax revenues, content creators must be at least one-year old (no, we aren't talking about toddlers), update their sites at least weekly and produce at least 30 percent of their own content, excluding user-generated posts. In denouncing yet another assault by the publishing industry a Google spokesperson is quoted as saying:
“Innovation and commercial cooperation is a better way forward than new legislation in order to ensure that the content industry thrives online. Google works closely with publishers to develop new technology to increase their audiences, revenue, and engagement on their sites, and we will continue doing so.”
From this it appears that Google is happy enough to help Big Media find a way to survive at the expense of 'the audience' that is currently sharing its data for free...

The proposed Israeli Google Tax is a bad way to redistribute the excessive value extracted by the Big Data platforms from the use of everyone else's data. Not only does it rewards publishers over the users whose participation is taken for granted, but governments are also grossly wasteful and inefficient financial conduits. Nobody would really be any better off if Big Data platforms were forced to part with a fair slice of their advertising revenues, only for that money to be soaked up by a few big publishers and state bureaucracy. 

Fortunately, an alternative ecosystem is steadily developing that should pave the way to fairly rewarding the use of everyone's data, but government's need to be patient and spare us the red tape in the meantime. 

More on this soon.