The MyData movement is like a big family of individuals, organisations and groups that support the idea of giving people rights and means to control their own data. Like in other families, not everybody agree on all topics. One question that seems divide opinions is how the movement should be positioned regarding to the giants of the current data economy?
The role of the big players (GAFA = Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, etc. ) in the future of MyData was not properly discussed in the public space of the conference, only in some online comments. Apparently, the opinions and positions of the participants vary. Some express a clear hostility towards the ‘big elephants’ and focus on building an alternative model to what they offer. Others are more willing to cooperate with the big ones, and think that it the GAFAs can change from the inside. The first group think that cooperation would lead to an absorption of MyData initiative, like it has happened previously for example to OpenID. The second group think that GAFAs are too strong to fail and they should be involved to create the change, as they have big resources.
Last autumn I was having a presentation in Tallinn eHealth conference. After my talk I got an e-mail from a person in the audience, from a Microsoft employee, wanting to bring into my knowledge how Microsoft works in the area of data protection and safety. The person’s attention was caught by one of my slides where Microsoft logo appeared in the corner of ”orgnization decide how the data is used”.
The diagram tries to visualise one of the three shifts explained in the MyData Declaration, with the message that MyData aims to have at the same time strong data protection and also frictionless usage of data (via people’s own choice).
I engaged in conversation with the person and explained that the image was not intended to be a categorisation of specific companies, the familiar to all logos were provocatively used to show the status quo of current data economy which has been heavily focused on increasing the usage and utility of data. That discussion made me to sharpen my own thinking about the GAFAs at least in two ways:
- Focus on the rules (not the players) of the data economy
- Think beyond GAFAs
Rules of the data game
In my next presentation commitment after Estonia in the Swedish Internet Dagarna I tried to put into words the first point.
The companies play with the rules that are dominant now in the data economy. It’s not like, Google and Facebook would want to do bad things for the society, but the rules they are playing may not be good for the society. We have to be able to change the rules and use less of our energy in pointing with fingers on the different players.
Quoting my self from the Swedish Internet Dagarna
The rules I refer to are the dominant economic models in the Internet. Attention economy (see also surveillance capitalism), where data is extensively used for creating monetizable changes in people’s behaviours (spend more time here, buy this, vote that…) is socially not sustainable. Business vice this is still very viable and therefore companies and up doing it and at the same time reinforcing that economic model as the rule.
We should not be targeting the big nor small players that currently play in the attention economy. If the rules stay the same the results are equally bad even if GAFA would be overtaken by bunch of newcomers. We should try to figure out actionable paths on changing the dominant economic models. Perhaps this sounds like a big challenge and it definitively is, but luckily change is always possible (if not the western economies would still rely on slavery in child labour).
In order to efficiently “change the game” we need to know the game. We should learn about and from the data giants and especially about their positioning, drivers and attitudes in the current data economy. In this learning journey focusing on just handful of companies would be too narrow minded. GAFA is a handy acronym, but there are more than just those four companies, that are powerful in the data economy.
Much of the digital economy is today predicated on the concept of intellectual property and many of the developed services remain black boxes. This question is huge for example when we’re talking about AI, algorithms. How do we deal with that when we’re trying to change the model? There are other companies out there that are less visible, but very strong in the current data economy like for example Salesforce and other CRMs or Acxiom and similar data brokers. These companies have incredibly large IPs and lot’s of ideas on where the data world should be going.
The GAFA hegemony is coming from the Silicon Valley, but we should not forget China’s BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, etc.). Despite data being important for all the “big ones” are also different between each others and they have different business models.
Should we play with the big boys?
To conclude — Is MyData a Force or Counter Force? I would say that MyData is definitively a counterforce to the currently dominant but societally unsustainable rules of the data economy.
The question if we should actively engage with the big players is a bit more tricky. In its mission MyData will need many sorts of allies. The big and powerful of today may be potentially very important in the journey of changing the rules of the game or they may eat MyData for breakfast.
The big ones have collectively but also separately huge investment power, lobbying power, power trough their user base etc. It is natural that their intention is to maintain or enhance their position in the market and they will use their powers for that aim (see. Kronos effect). What is masked behind the GAFA acronym is however that the they are not one, they do not have shared common goals and usually they do not work together.
Interesting future scenarios would be that some of the currently dominant players in the data economy would adopt the human centric approach and start using their powers for that in order to compete against the other giants. Would the human centric vision survive untouched in that turmoil? In the worst case the vision would distort and outcome would be some sort of widely adopted Frankenstein’s MyData: “personal data is very fluid and seemingly under people’s control, but in order to do anything meaningful in life personal data permissions are required everywhere, people don’t have real choice”.
The Frankensteins MyData scenario would mean that there was no real change in the rules of the game, just that some pieces from the MyData toolbox got stolen and used in the game with old rules.
I tend to think that besides just studying from distance it might be fruitful for the MyData movement to engage more with the big data corporations as long as we keep clear in mind the question of the rules of the game.
Today, Gianfranco Cecconi posted his reflections from the last week’s Facebook Summit in London with the title: “Facebook employees are humans, too” and ended his post with this invitation, which I gladly repeat:
MyData takes place this August in Helsinki, Finland, and the Call for Proposal is open. GAFA people, why don’t you just come and tell us your side of the story? I look forward to it.