There’s a great old joke about a robber who sticks up a husband and wife on the street. The robber points the gun at the wife and says to the husband, “your money or your wife.” After the husband doesn’t respond for a few seconds, the robber says, “Well, what it’s going to be?” And the husband says, “Hold on a second, I’m thinking.”
I thought of that joke recently in the context of the bargain we’ve made with our personal data that governs so much of our daily lives. The response by the tech giants, the companies that control our data, to the frightening, treasonous acts at the Capitol three weeks ago have made it unmistakably apparent how much power is concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable few. They are holding the proverbial gun, loaded with our data, and it’s pointed right at us.
We can debate the politics of the decisions made by Twitter, Facebook and the other tech giants in response to the Capitol attack. Personally I have no problem with restricting access to the former President, insurrectionists, white supremacists, or any other individuals threatening our democracy. Ban ’em all I say, one’s right to free speech is not unlimited. At the same time it should be obvious to anyone familiar with history that permitting such concentrated, unchecked power in the hands of a few inevitably threatens the liberties of the rest of us.
The tech giants have turned each of us into products through the commercialization of massive amounts of personal data, governed largely by rules they set themselves. In today’s world our data is our lives. Unlike the husband in the old joke, we never really were given a choice about what to do with it. Yes, we clicked “agree” on lengthy legal disclaimers written in dense language only few non-lawyers could get through or understand. But unlike the robber in the joke, the tech companies didn’t have the decency to lay out the consequences. Perhaps, in their defense, they didn’t fully understand themselves. Regardless, as a result we’ve allowed a select few, in the name of delivering us better services or helping businesses grow, to bargain our data, perhaps our most precious commodity in the digital age, away from us.
Others more informed and intelligent on these matters than I can offer concrete solutions. At a high level I’ve come to the conclusion that our personal data can not be controlled or housed by private enterprise, at least exclusively. As individuals we need full control of our personal data and a structure to house, protect and allow for its responsible commercialization that has more accountability than a publicly traded company. More government oversight and management, because it is, however imperfectly, accountable to all of us, is mandatory.
I come to this reluctantly as someone who holds in high regard the countless ways private enterprise, including the global tech giants, has improved all of our lives. And I think most would agree that public companies function better than governments. Especially anyone who has tried to deal with the DMV recently. But in certain areas of our lives I’d gladly trade less operational excellence for more accountability. Our highways, for example. I’ll deal with the potholes, endless construction projects and antiquated traffic management rather than live with a system that would potentially allow some billionaire CEO to tell me I can’t use the highway to visit my mom.
The largely well intentioned men and women who built and run these companies are some of the smartest, most talented people on the planet. But they are in way over their heads. No small group of individuals, no matter how intelligent or ethical, can be granted such unchecked power in a free society.
Fortunately, despite the tragedy of recent events, the choice is still ours to make. We can do something about it. The robber’s question hangs in the air, waiting for an answer. When it comes to our data, what’s it going to be?