Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance technology culture columnist.
As news about the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal slowly dripped out, each successive bit of information seemed worse than the last. First, we learned that an academic improperly gave research firm Cambridge Analytica access to the Facebook data of 50 million people by using a quiz that scraped people’s information. A couple of weeks later, we learned that the number was actually 87 million, including more than 600,000 Canadians. Topping things off nicely was a note from Facebook chief technology office Mike Schroepfer suggesting that almost all of Facebook’s two billion-plus users have had their publicly posted data scraped by various third-party apps over the years. It’s enough to make you want to throw your computer into the sea and become a hermit.
At the very least, Facebook has now begun notifying users that their information was improperly obtained. But reports from inside the firm from journalists such as BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel suggest the company has been so laser-focused on user engagement and profit that it has consistently let its ethical responsibility slide. And now that we know this lapse could potentially affect elections and democracy itself, it seems fair for reasonable people to ask: As social networks come to dominate more and more of our day-to-day lives, is it time to consider a public option?
The idea can seem alien, even a bit radical. But when thinking about the role of a public option in the digital world, it is best to think of it as a thought experiment – a kind of challenge to the untenable situation we live in now in which private companies exploit our data for profit.
What a public option would most certainly not be, however, is a state-run social network. Beyond the obvious fact that from the start it would be hopelessly uncool, and thus unpopular, it is also unnecessary. Instead, what is needed is a public infrastructure for data, something that takes personal information out of the hands of private companies, and puts it under legal protection. In one sense, what is thus necessary is a kind of online version of the driver’s licence or a social insurance number – a data-storage mechanism issued by the state that enables a host of other things to happen.
Imagine that each resident of Canada owned their own data: the digital detritus from which can be gleaned browsing habits, shopping history, cultural tastes and political leanings. That data could be stored in the cloud, or on personal devices, and be transportable – an idea suggested by former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian. But in order to make that data truly independent, the actual physical and digital infrastructure for that kind of personal data should be considered and funded as a normal part of government function such as roads or water. That data would be a default for social services to interact with: Individuals could choose what specific information they were willing to part with to be served ads or other suggestions, while companies would have to restructure or invent new systems to interact with a new user-centric approach to data.
True, business models would have to change, but profit would still be plentiful as it’s clear that people do want personalized experiences online – everything from suggested products to similar TV shows and music – and are willing to exchange some personal data for it. What they object to is not knowing how, where or under what circumstances their data are used, something making data publicly run and owned is uniquely suited to address.
The obvious question regarding a public option is why regulation isn’t preferable such that private companies would host the data. After all, the banking sector is extremely profit-driven but tight regulations do tend to tamp down on the worst excesses in finance. Why isn’t digital the same?
The difference is that in digital we aren’t trusting apps and websites with our hard-earned money; instead, it is data that we may not even know can be collected and can seem unimportant at the time. That is radically different from how we treat our cash.
But ultimately, the point is that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other digital platforms have become a de facto form of social infrastructure – the way in which we connect, receive news and entertain ourselves. In outsourcing those things to private companies, we have set the stage for a new digital era in which rights we should have are instead found in private terms of agreement and contracts. It’s time for a public option. If not, we may simply find ourselves in scandal after scandal as companies and their bottom lines dictate the tone and tenor of our digital world. It’s time to put data in the hands in which it belongs: ours.