"civil rights" entries
Further reading and discussion on the civil rights implications of big data.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about big data and civil rights, which seems to have hit a nerve. It was posted on Solve for Interesting and here on Radar, and then folks like Boing Boing picked it up.
I haven’t had this kind of response to a post before (well, I’ve had responses, such as the comments to this piece for GigaOm five years ago, but they haven’t been nearly as thoughtful).
Some of the best posts have really added to the conversation. Here’s a list of those I suggest for further reading and discussion:
Nobody notices offers they don’t get
On Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog, Anders Sandberg argues that transparency and reciprocal knowledge about how data is being used will be essential. Anders captured the core of my concerns in a single paragraph, saying what I wanted to far better than I could:
… nobody notices offers they do not get. And if these absent opportunities start following certain social patterns (for example not offering them to certain races, genders or sexual preferences) they can have a deep civil rights effect
To me, this is a key issue, and it responds eloquently to some of the comments on the original post. Harry Chamberlain commented:
However, what would you say to the criticism that you are seeing lions in the darkness? In other words, the risk of abuse certainly exists, but until we see a clear case of big data enabling and fueling discrimination, how do we know there is a real threat worth fighting?
What the data is must be linked to how it can be used.
Data doesn’t invade people’s lives. Lack of control over how it’s used does.
What’s really driving so-called big data isn’t the volume of information. It turns out big data doesn’t have to be all that big. Rather, it’s about a reconsideration of the fundamental economics of analyzing data.
For decades, there’s been a fundamental tension between three attributes of databases. You can have the data fast; you can have it big; or you can have it varied. The catch is, you can’t have all three at once.
I’d first heard this as the “three V’s of data”: Volume, Variety, and Velocity. Traditionally, getting two was easy but getting three was very, very, very expensive.
The advent of clouds, platforms like Hadoop, and the inexorable march of Moore’s Law means that now, analyzing data is trivially inexpensive. And when things become so cheap that they’re practically free, big changes happen — just look at the advent of steam power, or the copying of digital music, or the rise of home printing. Abundance replaces scarcity, and we invent new business models.
In the old, data-is-scarce model, companies had to decide what to collect first, and then collect it. A traditional enterprise data warehouse might have tracked sales of widgets by color, region, and size. This act of deciding what to store and how to store it is called designing the schema, and in many ways, it’s the moment where someone decides what the data is about. It’s the instant of context.
That needs repeating:
You decide what data is about the moment you define its schema.
Why propose principles for Internet freedom and a "Digital Bill of Rights" when existing ones will do?
How the Bill of Rights is being upheld in a digital context is, to say the least, an interesting living story to follow.
The passage of a resolution that human rights must also be protected on the Internet in the United Nations Human Rights Council was a historic affirmation of the principle that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.”
This affirmation may play well in the headlines, but it does raise some practical questions. For instance, would this high-level resolution by the U.N. Human Rights Council inhibit member countries if they violate their citizens’ right to freedom of expression online, if such countries are already violating human rights offline? Or would the U.N. Security Council ever vote for sanctions over Internet censorship of political or religious content that might be online speech in one country and deemed blasphemous or even illegal in another?
Violators could include Iran, Russia, Cuba, Syria — but also Pakistan, China, India or the United States or United Kingdom, should a livestreamer’s smartphone be taken away during a march or cell service shut down during a protest, as it was at a BART in San Francisco.
In this context — and related to their concerns about similar bills to the Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT IP Act — Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. Ron Wyden proposed a “Digital Bill of Rights” at the 2012 Personal Democracy Forum in New York City this summer.
In a phone interview last month, I asked Rep. Issa about the ideas behind the proposal principles and freedom of expression online.