TOC The Information Age values Your Turn

May 10, 2011

Aspirations, repression, confusion. This is not a comment on current events in the Arab world. I am neither eager nor qualified to compete with Philip Stephens (*). I am only thinking of what unfolds daily on the eprivacy front lines. If superficial, some similarities are striking though.

Sony is not Syria but its users sure take a pounding. Due to another attack from hackers, "Sony on Monday shut down a second network for its gamers" after "the intrusion at the main PlayStation Network two weeks ago", Joseph Menn and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson report (**).

Holland lies far from Egypt. Still hasn't perchance the former picked up the latter's best surveillance practices? Read James Kanter (***). "Reports emerged last month that the Dutch police had obtained information from TomTom, a maker of [...] navigation devices, while setting up speed traps".

And last week the US Supreme Court appeared potentially so confused that it may let pharmacies resell the prescription data that physicians confide in them to service patients, as forbidding this power grab would infringe the freedom of speech of pharmaceutical companies. Wouldn't such a strangely distorted and widely expansive view of freedom for the strong offer Muammar Qaddafi the perfect alibi not to leave Libya?

And so, beyond the obvious disparity of our topics, I embrace a common approach. In order to find some structure in this tumultuous Arab spring, Philip Stephens focuses on the values which have inspired it. He writes of "the desire for freedom at home", of the need to find "resolve and resources to nurture democracy". After five years of blogging, I too think it fruitful to renew my effort to discern the values behind the eprivacy wars.

In the past I have proposed Privacy, Identity, Responsibility as our motto. But these three terms are more on the level of duties and rights. We look for the moral aspirations beyond them which rise above the change in material conditions brought upon us by the Information Age.

I suggest these values form another triplet, made of Fairness, Freedom and Truth.

Without Truth, any data is doubtful, the identity of any source suspect, our Information Age the darkest of them all. Rumors and lies are nothing new but read John Gapper (****). While "many people have neither the time nor the inclination to filter out good or bad information", they want instant news. And so serious media is "inexorably dragged [...] away from the traditional approach of waiting for a while to nail down what is clearly true".

Popular judgment is a source of truth but, by enhancing its power over credible authorities and preferring fast algorithms to human recommenders, Internet favors truths of the self-fulfilling kind, well-known to roil markets, or sensational in nature, to the point of driving people to commit suicide.

The case for Freedom stems in part from the same inescapable fact that time is our most limited resource. Internet and smart phones may help free popular movements to emerge, they also enable spammers, legal or not, to eat up the minutes of our lives.

Violating privacy through hidden harassment is as troublesome, witness the reactions to too truthful complaints that Apple and Google tend to track our every move. Combine censorship with surveillance and even freedom of speech is at stake, from England to China.

Why Fairness? By invalidating most past tacit agreements which used to govern data related matters, Internet has given rise to a plunder economy where any responsibility for piracy is duly denied. It would be unfair to think of copyrights holders as the only victims. When consumers declare their personal data to Facebook for free, when cellphones observe their every move for free, it matters to privacy from a financial perspective.

Indeed data aggregators pocket the corresponding value from advertisers who fleece consumers on unfair markets. Absent any value, why would Google find Skyhook, "a pioneer in location-based services in mobile phones" incompatible with Android? Steve Lohr's report (*****) proves Jonathan Zittrain right. Had microcomputers be tethered like smartphones, wouldn't Microsoft have found Google incompatible with Windows?

Thus the Information Age forces a reinterpretation on three values which will structure it in return. Unfortunately these values are in conflict.

Freedom of speech is an obvious encouragement to spreading very elastic versions of Truth. Truth and Fairness often collide, for instance whenever a truth can cause disproportionate damage to one's reputation or undermines the uncertainty required for insurance schemes to be fair (1). What Fairness means to one will infringe on another's Freedom, the US Supreme Court giving us an extreme example. Readers will readily add to this list.

"A new consensus is needed to govern the use of [personal data,] this increasingly valuable commodity, says Michele Luzi [...]. Ultimately, you have to have a system of rights". I concur wholeheartedly with this declaration reported by Richard Waters (******). But when conflicting values are in play, progress on rights is deeply contentious. As Richard Waters asks, "is it fair to judge a person merely on a prediction of their future behavior?"

Rather than bargaining on values, perhaps one should first focus on new, practical means to foster the rights and duties called for by our Age.

For example, the ePrio patents (3) provide an alternative to excessive data centralization by enabling information to be refined at its source. It allows each personal data producer to retain total eprivacy while enjoying all the benefits of personalized interactions. Offer modeling may still requires central analysis but on much smaller samples which it becomes expedient to buy, as Nielsen does for its television ratings, rather than steal.

This touches on many useful steps. Decentralization is the first. Being judged by one's neighbors is one thing, by a universal recommender quite another. Large scale central data control ends in corruption, mirroring the oil curse in Libya. Unbundling data contracts from ordinary transactions is another (2), as bundling forces a consent to give their rights away on reluctant consumers. To these steps one may add efficient protest processes.

Whether for privacy or the Middle East, if both small steps and grand bargains fail to disarm entrenched conflicts of interests, expect revolutions.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........... The promise of a post-jihad world, by Philip Stephens (Financial Times) - May 6, 2011
  • (**) ......... Sony under fire after new breach, by Joseph Menn and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson (Financial Times) - May 4, 2011
  • (***) ....... Europe Leads In Pushing For Privacy Of User Data, by James Kanter (New York Times) - May 4, 2011
  • (****) ..... Half-baked news from Abbottabad, by John Gapper (Financial Times) - May 5, 2011
  • (*****) ... Suit Opens A Window Into Google, by Steve Lohr (New York Times) - May 9, 2011
  • (******) . A binary goldmine, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - May 6, 2011
  • (1) in the US, it is better not to know one has a pre-existing medical condition
    .... in Europe, women's pensions can no longer be adjusted to account for the fact men have a lower life expectancy
  • (2) for more details on unbundling, see my feedback to the FTC's request for comments on privacy
  • (3) US Patents Number 6,092,197 and 7,945,954 and US Patent Application 2009/0076914.
May 2011
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