If anything should be defined as a public good — “a commodity or service provided without profit to all members of a society” — it should be the ability to study and understand society toward a goal of improving everyone’s lives.
But over the past decade, the most valuable data, processing power, and people have become concentrated in a handful of private companies that have demonstrated an almost genetic unwillingness to share their platform as a public good. Sure, they’ll happily share their platforms’ output — their consumer products — as for-profit services. And yes, each of us as consumers can benefit greatly from free social media, free search, free access to the “Everything Store,” and expensive but oh-so-worth-it smart phones.
For professional and personal reasons I’ve been spending a lot more time familiarizing myself with Amazon technologies. It’s damn impressive and at some level scary. The average person has no idea how advanced this technology is and how much data can be scooped up and processed with little effort. But as Batelle points out, it’s not being used for public good in ways that it could be.
Am I arguing that the government should take over Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple so as to beat back Russian info-ops? No, of course not.But our current response to Russian aggression illustrates the lack of partnership and co-ordination between government and our most valuable private sector companies. And I am hoping to raise an alarm: When the private sector has markedly better information, processing power, and personnel than the public sector, one will only strengthen, while the latter will weaken. We’re seeing it play out in our current politics, and if you believe in the American idea, you should be extremely concerned.
Data is the future of politics, society, and human rights, yet our political organizations are stuck mostly in the past and denying that any of this is important. As net neutrality dies, most administration boot-lickers are dismissing that anything out of the ordinary is happening.