TOC It comes down to a matter of money Your Turn

January 29, 2013

"Should easyJet offer me speedy boarding, and should I take advantage of it?", John Kay asks after having done the deed (*). His behavior is no proof Man lacks free will, his conscience forever lagging after motor centers. Rather it illustrates a truth in pattern recognition, namely your mind is tuned to see what you expect. Having bought "the recent book by American philosopher Michael Sandel, "What Money Can't Buy"", he was quick to spot a practical example when it presented itself in the ordinary stream of his daily life.

As it happens John Kay's column timely provides me with the opportunity I wanted to amplify my last fillip. If you recall, I felt the aphorism that no well-known solution to a problem can be at the same time neat, plausible and right did not apply to my approach to eprivacy issues. Indeed despite being neat, plausible and right, it has so far been ignored. But am I therefore admitting its adoption in the future must make it wrong?

It cannot be wrong to give people property rights to the confidential, personal data that, unselfconscious artists, they generate in the performance of their daily life. And the very technology I have invented makes it plausible by breaking the trade-off between privacy and economic growth so often put forth by Big Data devotees. But on second thought the first criterion may be tougher to satisfy. Is it so sure my whole approach is neat enough?

I must say what has powered these fillips for more than six years is my progressive understanding that giving people ownership over their own data is intimitely tied up in a host of difficulties. I decline any responsibility as I have been careful not to turn ownership rights into some absolute good which should have priority over all considerations of social solidarity. Still the fact remains. Long the list of all the obstacles to lift.

The primary stumbling block is that western democracies are in the grip of pronaocracy. How can the legal framework be correctly updated when this would threaten so many powerful corporate interests? Writing for instance about high speed Internet accessibility, Susan Crawford points that "in nearly 20 states, laws sponsored by incumbent network operators have raised barriers for cities wanting to foster competitive networks" (**). As it is not plausible to hope the review can be limited to eprivacy, it cannot be neat to confront all that put a break on the coming Information Age.

I coined "pronaocracy" to stress the distance between real democracy and its real state today. The need to rectify our vocabulary extends further.

Capitalism as practiced by capitalists has nothing to do with what Fernand Braudel prefers to call a market based economy. The latter assumes a healthy competition among decentralized actors. The reality displays a distorted form of rivalry between worldwide non state powers. Richard Waters' comment on a possible investment by Microsoft in a Dell buyout is illuminating. "The investment return is likely to be a distant second in Microsoft's considerations" (***). Follows a dispatch on foreign policy at Microsoft which could have taught Philip II of Spain a thing or two.

Good concepts may cover up questionable practices. Evil concepts also include much we cannot impeach. Betting and speculation are among them. Even if we hold these activities in low esteem, we cannot neatly avoid them. Our own life is made of choices, each with an element of chance. The speculators to eliminate fall in two subtypes, those who take real but biased bets, without all the associated risks, and those who make fake bets.

Banks too big to fall, data aggregators too busy to care bias bets. Fake bets happen when one sells one's horse for a kingdom or similarly prices one's lumber inventory to hurricane victims. With more planning, one can also load the dice through insider trading. Broadly speaking, this covers how Google search favors its own services and the reason for prosecuting the "104 current and former Barclays employees, including a number of senior executives, [...] publicly identified as part of the Libor litigation", per Caroline Binham, Daniel Schäfer and Brooke Masters' reporting (****).

Even if one assumes democracy, capitalism and speculation have all been neatly fixed, much more work would remain.

When he decries that "a patent is a deed of ownership to a clearly described idea", calling such "a form of "intellectual property" [...] a comforting way to think about them", Robin Feldman falls prey to some matter fetish (*****). Property is quite properly defined as what is both valuable and transferable, no matter how abstract. Yet from the wrong premise, he reaches the right conclusion. "Patents [should be] a starting point for negotiation". The real obstacle to tackle is to ensure fair closure, a task as easy as designing a process which will deliver peace in the Middle East.

I did propose a neat solution to insure negotiations involving intellectual property are always successful. My readers judge if, in a world enamored with the star system, it is plausible to put a cap on the total income generated by a unit of intellectual property. The issue with greed is that it is insatiable and cannot accept any limit on its rewards. If "one day short of eternity" is not the rallying cry of fundamentalists on a rampage, what is?

A necessary component of the fuel which powers society, greed is good as long as it is properly mixed with the other component, social solidarity. Unfortunately one can be assured the balance will not be efficient unless democracy itself is strong enough.

The only neat result from this analysis seems that the five problematic concepts so far mentioned, democracy, capitalism, speculation, negotiations, the star system, are both well-known and inextricably linked. Privacy is a social, not a technical issue and society itself submits to no neat solution.

Yet it would be a mistake to stop at this point, hopelessly mired in powerlessness and pessimism. For the dawn of the Information Age is adding two more obstacles to our list and we must suspend our final judgment until we have a chance to gauge their impact.

First in a world where data become the dominant goods, a serious concern arises as almost no data is reliable, data fraud being more invisible than material forgery. With a 15 year lie, Lance Armstrong has at least one last chance to a lasting title for no better liar will come willingly forward.

Second our plunder economy is but a transitory stage as it does not create wealth, only redistribute what it does not destroy. But what sustainable model can an Information Age economy follow which accounts for its dominant goods and does not involve money?

Yet for Michael Sender, money turns all that to which it is applied into commodities and John Kay gives us three reasons to refuse such a change. When "it affronts human dignity [...], disturbs social solidarity [...] [and] is aesthetically unpleasant". To which we must add Yochai Benkler's complementary point that, as a commodity, data has no value since it can be duplicated at no cost.

All about money, ePrivacy is the tip of a larger problem. Can we next week accommodate the world with liars and reconcile it with money?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........... Low-cost flights and the limits of what money can buy, by John Kay (Financial Times) - January 23, 2013
  • (**) ......... How to Get America Online, by Susan Crawford (New York Times) - January 24, 2013
  • (***) ....... Microsoft factors the future into its Dell-iberations, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - January 24, 2013
  • (****) ..... Barclays top brass faces fresh Libor heat, by Caroline Binham, Daniel Schäfer and Brooke Masters (Financial Times) - January 25, 2013
  • (*****) ... Warning: This Image May Contain 7 Patent Violations, by Robin Feldman (Boston Globe) - January 20, 2013
January 2013
Copyright © 2013 ePrio Inc. All rights reserved.