TOC David and Goliath Your Turn

August 26, 2008

Mention David and Goliath around you. Everyone knows victory in this singular combat went to the dashing youth. Such an outcome resonates with the American spirit and continues to inspire many acts of daring. It is all a misunderstanding. If the Bible retells David's fight against his formidable enemy, it is precisely because under normal circumstances Goliath always wins. For when human expectations fail, God reveals His Hand.

The sad truth is that in defending our data rights we are facing Goliath today and, History reverting to its normal course, the outcome is grim.

Not that Goliath has set his mind never to retreat. Seasoned warriors know better. Take Comcast, under pressure from the FCC over its practice of slowing down Internet content selectively. Whenever its coaxial cable bandwidth is not enough to meet user demand, it now plans to slow down "the heaviest Web users" (*). Laudable but who believes Comcast marketing literature will warn heavy users to expect a "really good DSL experience", to parrot its general manager for online services? Per Saul Hansell's report (**), Verizon has invested heavily on fiber optics to compete on bandwidth. Can Comcast afford truth in advertising? Will Comcast even let users check its network saturation level in real time?

Goliath also knows when to fake concern. Writing about the security failure at the Princeton Review which exposed tens of thousands of student files, Brad Stone quotes its CEO saying "as soon as I found out [...] we acted immediately. [...] The Princeton Review takes Internet privacy seriously" (***). This assertion seems highly debatable since "the Princeton Review neglected several accepted online security practices". And who expects students to be compensated? If you assign a zero value to any privacy damage you cause, where is the incentive to act on your words?

Give it to Goliath, he is a capitalist at heart. A feature rather than a commodity, privacy is only handled as part of complex trades on "value markets". It just happens that, contrary to the stock market, value markets are neither fair nor efficient and so privacy gets lost. Do not expect change to be on the way. My favorite example of a value market is admissions to sport events. Read Roger Blitz about the current fiasco which has left "banks of empty seats" at the Olympic games while "all events were sold out" (****). Old topics still make news.

Goliath can of course wrong-foot himself. We saw how lenders can collect information on a borrower to his or her disadvantage. Aline Van Duyn now describes how "data collection [on borrowers] has become choppy" of late (*****). Without good consumer profile data, Fair Isaac has trouble profiling bad credit risks accurately and lenders suffer in proportion. This proves two things. First confidential data on consumer behavior has real value. Second companies are expected to "take it for free". Talk about old Isaac robbing Esau blind.

Let us not forget Goliath is foremost a soldier. He rejoices at the perspective offered by cyberwar, "the dangers of [which] are real", Victor Mallet warns us (******). But beyond the current forecast of denial of access attacks on news websites and the crippling of critical economic networks, we must remember to include personal intelligence gathering into the mix.

Today Goliath would hack into Facebook's servers and learn David has been befriended by Samuel, a man born against all human expectations. Reassessing the odds accordingly, Goliath would loudly declare the killing of underage children beneath his valor and decline to fight David.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............. Comcast to Slow Web Service At Times to Its Heaviest Users, Bloomberg News (New-York Times) - August 21, 2008
  • (**) ........... A Smart Bet Or a Big Mistake, by Saul Hansell (New-York Times) - August 19, 2008
  • (***) ........ Student Files Are Exposed On Web Site, by Brad Stone (New-York Times) - August 19, 2008
  • (****) ...... Poor attendances leave hosts with empty feeling, by Roger Blitz (Financial Times) - August 19, 2008
  • (*****) .... Hard-pressed consumers refuse to read from the script, by Aline Van Duyn (Financial Times) - August 17, 2008
  • (******) .. Mutually assured destruction in cyberspace, by Victor Mallet (Financial Times) - August 20, 2008
August 2008
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