Captivity of the Commons

This post is part two of the series, “The Question Concerning Social Technology”. Part one is here. These posts will be opened to live discussion in an upcoming webcast on May 27.

In January 2002 DARPA launched the Information Awareness Office. The mission was to, “ imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness (emphasis added)” The notion of a government agency achieving total information awareness was too Orwellian to ignore. Under criticism that this “awareness” could quickly migrate to a mass surveillance system the program was defunded.

Fast-forward to last week and my near-purchase of Libbey Duratuff Gibralter Glasses (the perfect bourbon glass one might speculate). Over the course of the next few days I was peppered with exact-match ads for Libbey Duratuff glassware on several other websites; A small example of information awareness at work.

Personal data is the currency of Web 2.0. Knowing what we watch, buy, click, own, what we think, intend and ultimately do confers competitive advantage. Facebook possesses your social graph, your personal interests and your full profile (age, location, relationship status etc.) not to mention your daily (or hourly) answer to their persistent question, “what’s on your mind?”. Reviewing the “25 Surprising Things Google Knows About You” should give anyone pause. And it’s not just the Web 2.0 set. Credit Card Companies, Telcos, Insurance , Pharma… all are collecting vast stores of personal data. If you watch the trendline it is moving toward more data and more analytic capability – not less.

So why is it that we seem to have more comfort when the capacity for total information awareness lies with corporations as opposed to government? Experience shows that there is a very thin barrier between the two. To wit, the release of thousands of phone records to the U.S. government – and, conveniently, government immunity for those same corporations after the breach. Google and Yahoo! and Microsoft have all been accused of cooperating with the Chinese government to aid censorship and repression of free speech. What happens if/when we encounter the next version of the Bush administration that sees no problem abrogating civil rights in pursuit of “evildoers”?

What’s more, when we deliver our personal information over to corporations we are giving this data over to an institution that is amoral. Companies are not yet structured to deliver moral or ethical results – they are encouraged to grow and deliver “shareholder value” (read money) which is a numb and narrow measure of value. Do I want my data to be managed by an amoral institution?

To be clear – I want the convenience and miracles that modern technology brings. I love the Internet and I am willing to give over lots of data in the trade. But I want two fundamental protections:

First, change the corporation. The structure of the corporation continues to be driven by 20th century hard goals of efficiency and scale – not by more complex measures of environmental sustainability, value creation and the commonweal. These are simply not adequately factored into any structural, organizational, incentive or taxation systems of business today. Profit and profit motive are fine – but hiding social and environmental costs is no longer acceptable. I want to deal with institutions capable of morality. This is no small task – but if we can build the Internet….

Second. We need a right to privacy that matches the 21st century reality. As a friend of mine likes to say, “privacy is now a responsibility – not a right.” While it is pithy (and perhaps true), the reason we grant rights – and laws to enforce those rights in society is the simple fact that people do not generally have the wherewithal to protect themselves from large, institutional interests. In the same way that regulatory structures are needed to keep a financial system in balance (alas even the Ayn Rand acolyte Greenspan finally agrees with this truism), we need new rights and regulations governing the use of our personal data – and simple sets of controls over who has access to it.

The true work of the 21st century lies not in refining our technology – this we will achieve without any political will. The work lies in re-imagining our institutions.

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