Personal data and trust

At the beginning of the generalization of internet, many scholars and policy-makers were techno-optimist: seeing this transformational technology as a promising opportunity to increase public participation in local to global governance mechanisms, improve public institutions efficiency and effectiveness, and bring peoples together by bridging the gap between cultures, languages and territories. Since then, a number of technology “giants” emerged: Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple (GAFA) became some of the most profitable companies in the world. These multinational corporations raised a great amount of hope in terms of affordable communication and access to information. They conveyed a “Californian” message of freedom of speech, public participation, shared economy and democracy.

However, in the last years, users became increasingly concerned about these tech giants and the related ethical and legal issues.Their business models are partly (sometimes majorly) based on the collection, storage and analysis of large amounts of data (big data phenomenon), often detrimental to the individual user’s privacy rights. Their business models are partly (if not majorly) based on the collection, storage and analysis of large amounts of data (big data phenomenon), often detrimental to the individual user’s privacy rights. Data mining is far from being neutral and without consequences since information is power:

  • Individual users have lost some of their power at the same time they have lost some of their privacy.
  • States have lost some of their power to the benefit of these tech giants on the international stage.

Personal information 

Although almost invisible to the eyes of the individual user, data mining (and the hereby loss of privacy and control over the user’s personal data) is unprecedented in terms of scope and speed. A small number of multinational corporations choose what users can read and watch online. Google monitors online behaviors, chooses what we read and watch, which consequently has a strong influence on what we write, like, share, and think. We could dare saying that Facebook has become the largest surveillance system in the world. It is probably also true of most GAFA companies, and on a smaller scale, for many ICT companies. For the average internet user, many questions remain either problematic:

  • What happens to personal data once collected?
  • How do companies use all the data collected?
  • Who buys these vast amounts of data?
  • How to avoid digital trails?
  • How to avoid being in a filter bubble?

Thanks to the information collected, tech giants have an incredible amount of power over individual users almost globally. Individual users who rely more and more on ICTs to interact, entertain and learn are in the hands of a very small number of organisations, who not only dominate the medium, but also know everything about them. It is a very rare situation in history, when an institution knows so much about each and everyone of us (and beyond borders), and at the same time has the monopole of all means of communication and creation.

Also preoccupying is the fragmentation of data. Personal data is collected by one company, who then shares it with its partners and sub-contractors.  This means that the privacy issue is not only a problem with tech giants, but also with a myriad of smaller entreprises with very unequal levels of security capacity. The recent case of data breach at Swisscom showed the interdependence of tech companies when it comes to data security.

Power struggle on the international stage

Tech giants not only know a lot about all of us, but they also have the capacity to benefit from it (computing and storage power), which made them influential players on the international stage. Thanks to their technological advances, and the attention we generously provide for free, these multinational corporations can reinforce their dominant position by investing in the next stages of the technology evolution (and by doing so comforting their dominant position).

They have also gained the capacity to set the political agenda (nationally and internationally). Their recent role in political elections is now well established. The way they allow themselves to avoid paying taxes, and not take part in global conferences on cyber-security, is an indication of their power on the international stage. With very few exceptions, they have the capacity to opt out of the control of states and write the very same rules that will apply to them.

For states, the current situation is indeed complex. They must defend themselves on cyberspace against other states, individuals (including nationals),  multinationals, tech giants, and terrorist groups. But in the case of tech giants, the struggle of power is fairly different, since they can control not only the message but also the medium. For civil society and the individual user, the situation is not far better, since they have no real power except in some internet governance institutions such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Number (ICANN) among others. At Davos 2018, journalists described the phenomenon of “techlash”, a neologism to combine the words of technology and backlash, to describe how states and civil society now perceive tech giants.

A question of trust and participation

History has shown in many occasions that political stability require some form of equitable and inclusive participation in deciding of the fate of one’s nation. This might be even truer in the information age with the politicization of global issues and international institutions. Yet, with the concentration of information and power in the hands of tech giants, we are far from the “sharing” economy, which in fact is a “concentrating” economy.  At the same time, global issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, inequalities, and terrorism to name only few, require global answers.

Global institutions are crucial to respond to the challenges of a globalized world. They organize the efforts of the international community to manage global public issues and intend to tackle some of the most pressing issues of our times. Inclusive governance processes and organizations are at the same time praised (for their higher degree of inclusiveness, legitimacy, accountability and ownership) and decried (for their slow and sometimes costly processes leading to sometimes no concrete consensus). Technology, and in particular blockchain, can help mitigate the negative aspects of inclusive governance and enhance its advantages.

In terms of inclusive participation, the UNESCO’s report on multi-stakeholder model of internet governance[1] offers an inspiring case study. Their model of inclusive governance is based on the following key principles: collaboration, transparency, inclusive and diverse participation, flexible and relevant processes, private and safe data and communication, and accountability of decisions. Similarly, blockchain technology is a distributed system based on analogous principles:

  • Collaboration: additional blocks of data are created and added thanks to mass collaboration.
  • Transparency: information is available for everyone to see and download a copy. All rules and requirements are the same for everyone and for all to see.
  • Inclusive and diverse participation: no central authority or small group can take over the control of such platform.
  • Flexible and relevant processes: each Blockchain platform can adapt its consensus mechanism based on specific needs and requirements.
  • Private and safe data and communication: all data collected and stored on a Blockchain platform is safe thanks to cryptography and distributed copies throughout the network.
  • Accountability of decisions: all transactions are time-stamped and stored. Any new piece of information must refer precisely to previous transactions without any possible change.

In addition, blockchain reinforces trust by allowing all agents of its network to see all the information that has ever been added to the chain. Trust is encoded and distributed. Information is never entrusted in a single user (individual or institution), which means that participants in a blockchain can exchange value directly, knowing that the other party will respect what was agreed. Any type of information and value can be stored transparently and safely. Blockchain prevents any type of deletion, alteration and correction, which means that any transaction, practice, and process (this is where blockchain becomes interesting for governance questions) has a digital record and identification that can be shared: “Intermediaries like lawyers, brokers, and bankers might no longer be necessary. Individuals, organizations, machines, and algorithms would freely transact and interact with one another with little friction. This is the immense potential of Blockchain.”[2]

 

If citizens (and their representative institutions namely states) have lost some of their power due to the generalisation of internet and its numerous applications, blockchain, represents a promising opportunity to restore their power through trustworthy and inclusive participatory institutions and mechanisms on the international stage. This distributed system, where information is indefinitely available to everyone and impossible to tamper, should provide a new “benevolent weapon” for civil society to make its voice heard on the international stage, and regain the ownership of global decisions and institutions. At the end of the day, it is a question of trust.

[1] UNESCO (2017), What if we all governed the Internet? Advancing multistakeholder participation in Internet governance. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0025/002597/259717e.pdf

[2] Iansiti, Marco & Lakhani, Karim R. (2017) The Truth About Blockchain. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-truth-about-Blockchain