Let’s make the NSA’s data available for public use

Evgeny Morozov writes: Search without Google is like social networking without Facebook: unimaginable. But superb proprietary algorithms and extremely talented employees only partially explain why both fields are dominated by just one firm. The real reason is that both Google and Facebook got into their fields early on, accumulated troves of data about their users, and are now aggressively exploiting that data to offer unique services that their data-poor contenders simply cannot match, no matter how innovative their business models.

Take Google’s personalized search or Facebook’s Graph Search feature. Both features are trivial to replicate; it’s the user data that makes them stand out. Thus, Google will indicate which links have been endorsed by our “friends” right in the search results; Facebook, via Graph Search, allows us to tap the wisdom of our friends and their friends.

Both companies have successfully approximated and then monetized our “social graph”—the once-trendy term to describe our many overlapping connections to other people. It’s small things like the social graph that explain why even a better, more innovative search engine or a social network with more respect for user privacy would have a hard time competing with Google and Facebook: As long as the dominance of these firms is powered by vast troves of user data, competitors are doomed.

Were we to rebuild our information infrastructure from scratch, we would surely notice that the current system is awful for competition. How could we run things differently? One option might be to run the social graph as a public institution of sorts, with state regulators making sure that all companies get equal access to such crucial information. Many of our social connections predate—and might even outlive—both Google and Facebook. These companies have mapped them well, but this shouldn’t prevent us from thinking of alternative ways of mapping them and making them available. Thus, instead of pouring public money into building better search engines—a mission attempted and quickly aborted by some European politicians—governments can focus on ensuring that the data playing field remains as level as possible. Better search engines and social networking sites might then emerge on their own, without any need for extra public backing.

The scheme could have many other benefits. For example, the regulators would be able to exercise far greater control over how user data is collected and accessed by third parties. It should be possible to anonymize this data so that better personalized services can be built without compromising user privacy. The fears of “the filter bubble” are greatly exaggerated; personalization is not evil per se—it’s the data trails that it leaves in its wake that should trouble us.

A few months ago, this might have seemed a reasonable but ultimately quixotic proposal. For a start, there seems dangerously little interest or desire in rebuilding—or even reimagining—our global information infrastructure. Just imagine the kind of effort that would be needed to gather all this information and organize it in an easy-to-use manner. Who would possibly fund such an endeavor?

Now that Edward Snowden has blown the whistle on the extensive spying operations of the National Security Agency, this question seems obsolete. Take the NSA’s much-discussed collection of metadata—the seemingly benign (or so they claim) information about who calls whom and when. It’s precisely this kind of metadata that is needed to build a better publicly run social graph. In fact, the NSA has probably already built it—and not just for America but probably for users in many other countries as well—often with tacit cooperation from intelligence services and telecommunication providers of those countries.

We can debate the ethics and legality of such initiatives until we all turn blue—and I suggest that we do, for, based on Snowden’s revelations, the NSA’s system is mired in secrecy, lacks proper congressional oversight, and enjoys unlimited rhetorical and lobbying support from the military-industrial complex. So, yes: The NSA’s data-collection practices must be reformed with accountability in mind.

These, however, are all questions about the future. But there’s a far more pragmatic question about the present: The NSA has all this data, and it’s not going away. (If anything, the much-discussed data storage center that the NSA is building in Utah suggests otherwise.) It would be a colossal mistake not to come up with a global institutional arrangement that would make at least chunks of that data available for public use. [Continue reading…]

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