Privacy, Censorship and the new Oligarchs

I’m crotchety enough to have used the world wide web in the early nineties and before that, Usenet in the eighties. Back then the internet was a wild west where anarchy was viewed as a benefit. Openness and “freedom” – however you defined it – was ruthlessly defended, often to lunatic proportions. Back then the press blamed everything bad on the internet and privacy was a big issue. We seem to have come a long way from that world, but still the press blames everything bad on the internet and privacy is still a big issue.

Even bigger in the last few weeks with the furore over Facebook’s antics and Google’s drive-by privacy violations. A couple of good commentaries on this have been the Background Briefing report on the “Privacy Paradox” and Nicolas Carr’s observations on Facebook’s identity lock-in.

It is not surprising that the anarchy of the early web led to the building of “walled gardens” as a form of protection (this was AOL’s first web business model). It’s perhaps also not surprising that some of those walled gardens have become fortresses where the new Oligarchs exploit their netizens as “bonded labour”. Meet the new Oligarchs:

  • Steve Jobs rules fortress AppStore. He is chief censor and code reviewer and wants to protect our iP* user experience. All for our own good.
  • Sergei and Larry rule fortress Google. They have the largest correlation engine on the planet. They “[W]on’t be Evil” but we must trust that they know where lies the boundary. Google only wants to improve our search experience. All for our own good.
  • Mark Zuckerberg rules fortress Facebook. He generally only opens his mouth to change feet, but lately says he wants to unburden us of all this privacy nonsense. Privacy is just so 20th century. All for our own good.
  • Stephen Conroy wants to rule fortress Australia. Protecting us all from internet nasties by throwing a big censorship net around the country – just like China and Pakistan. All for our own good.

The problem with these new Oligarchs is that they purport to have our best interests at heart, but there is no openness or recourse, no rationale as to how they will separate our interests from their own. Google is too protective of their information assets and conveniently forgets to tell us about much of what they gather. Facebook views our private data too much as their own property to be onsold to others without our knowledge. AppStore acceptance or rejection appears arbitrary and fickle. As for the Net Filter, Conroy claims that a democratically elected government is more trustworthy than Facebook & Google – but there is nothing so undemocratic as a secret blacklist.

The new Oligarchs have built their fortresses on the architecture of the internet. Capitalising on Metcalfe’s law to build unbelievably valuable networks. But Metcalfe’s law also applies to our personal information. The value of any one piece of data about us is proportional to the square of all the other pieces of information they can correlate it with.

Is it all bad? Not really, the lesson of the web is that networks can provide powerful advantages. The Google search engine is testament to the power of massive collaborative filtering. Social networks such as Facebook have opened up wonderful social landscapes. The iP* AppStore has revolutionised the way we go mobile. To some extent this is also what was bought-into when we smothered all internet business models that involved payment. Web users want everything free but data centres, unlike clouds, don’t build themselves. The only currency we have allowed on the Web is that which can be obtained covertly. The real danger arises when power becomes so concentrated and subject to the whims of a few individuals. This is the lesson in the architecture of the underlying packet-switched internet.

From the old anarchic internet to the new oligarchic internet – everything and nothing has changed. Perhaps we should feel a lot less safe now when such people have our own interests so much at heart.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Alex Jara on 06.29.10 at 7:32 pm

Hi mate, Very pertinent article to the times we live in. I don’t believe that Steve Jobs really expects me to read all the 65 pages of T&C’s when I click “I Agree” on the Appstore (just to download the latest version of “Angry Birds”). He may own my soul for all I know. I’m sure you’re aware that anarchy on web is still alive and kicking, as a testament my jail broken iPad is a great wireless hotspot. Steve definitely wouldn’t approve :)

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