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Big Tech Is Hoarding the Data that Humanity Needs to Thrive

5 minute read
Mayer-Schönberger, the Professor of Internet Governance at Oxford, and Ramge are the authors of Access Rules: Freeing Data from Big Tech for a Better Future.

In September 1983, a Korean commercial airliner with 269 souls on board strayed off course and into Soviet airspace. It was intercepted by a Soviet fighter jet, then shot down with a deadly air-to-air missile. Everyone on board perished.

To prevent such tragedies from happening again, President Reagan took a bold step and ordered the US military to make the then-new Global Positioning System (GPS) available to everyone. The GPS satellites send precise beacons down to Earth that, when combined, provide users with exact locations. The change in policy wasn’t costless. Building the satellites, sending them to space and maintaining them ran into the billions. The US military considered location information strategic and had scrambled the signal, so that nobody else could use it. But Reagan believed having everyone use GPS would be worth it – not only because it could save lives. It could also spur progress and innovation. He was right. GPS led to breakthrough innovation from fleet management to smartphones, created new global markets, and enabled societal progress at scale.

It may be time to apply the lesson from GPS to digital platforms.

In our data age, access to data is increasingly crucial – whether for economic success, innovation, or human survival. But data is unevenly distributed. A very small number of very large platforms companies collect and control huge amounts of data. Nobody else can access these potential wells of insights.

Lopsided access to data is not only an economic problem. We all need facts and data to make better decisions. If only a few have access to data, we inhibit our ability to decide well. It is a horrific wastage of potential insights and progress. Without sufficient data, we understand less and choose badly, individually and as a society.

Data access could help make mobility more efficient and sustainable. Today, Tesla cars collect mountains of data from sensors and send it to the mothership. That data is only used to advance Tesla’s self-driving capabilities. But the data could be far more useful. With it we could identify perilous road sections and city streets in need of a pedestrian crossing. Improved road safety could save lives and reduce the million plus annual deaths worldwide caused by traffic accidents. It would also enable innovation. Right now, public transport companies in many cities have exclusive data deals with Google.

Or take Alzheimer’s: the illness is likely caused by a combination of factors. To develop a cure requires a joint analysis of genetic and environmental data at scale. But that’s impossible because large industry players keep the relevant data to themselves. This isn’t just a problem for treating Alzheimer’s; it applies to most illnesses that affect humanity.

Much has been written lately of the coming global food crisis. It’s difficult to sustain nine billion people. As we discovered, a war in just one country can cause global food shortages. It’s clear we need to grow smarter and use food more efficiently. For that we need to understand what people eat and when as well as what grows where. That data is already being collected, but it’s guarded by monopoly players in agricultural technology as well as dominant social media companies. As Big Tech profits, humanity loses.

The solution is obvious and powerful. Like with other common goods such as security, justice, basic education and infrastructure, government action is needed. When it comes to access to data, government action is neither untested nor radical. We have made data accessible before when it was held by a powerful corporation. For instance, in the 1950s, the US government forced AT&T to settle an antitrust lawsuit by mandating that all patents of its famous Bell Labs be opened to US businesses, including key transistor patents. Within years, this kickstarted what we now call Silicon Valley. Enabling many startups and not just the incumbents increases chances for innovative breakthroughs and provides our society with resilience in times of turmoil.

Having large digital monopolists open their data troves to others won’t take anything from them. They can continue to use the data they have, but when others can do so, too, it will spread opportunities and emphasize human ingenuity—rather than reward brutal resource hoarding.

We face substantial challenges around the world – autocratic regimes engaged in wars of aggression, pandemics threatening our health, climate change, societal polarization. Some governments have chosen to limit access to information for their people, to bank on less data and less knowledge. That’s a dead end. Without access to vital data, armies lose in battle and companies in the marketplace. But far more is at stake: without access to data societies cannot progress and humanity sheds its resilience.

Limiting access may protect monopolies and autocracies in the short term, but it utterly fails to solve the big issues we face. The successes of both democracy and markets tell us that the free flow of information is crucial – that to know more about the world leads to better informed decisions.

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