We have a complaint here that Facebook and Google are profit seeking firms. Therefore they should never be allowed to do anything. That seems to be the gist of it at least. Because, you know, profit seeking is evil therefore everything should be done by public bureaucracies.
Which is to rather miss the point:
Giving tech giants the power to “solve” social problems would mean granting them an immense stake in almost everything that our society requires in order to function. Google is currently signing contracts with the NHS to process patient records, despite there being legal question marks over a similar arrangement with a London hospital a few years ago. What’s more, the climate crisis is a political, not a technological problem. Whatever improvements Google or Facebook could make to our infrastructure would still fall far short of solving it. And when environmental collapse stands to affect poorest communities the hardest, the question remains as to how an industry that drives extreme wealth inequality can really be said to help build a greener, more humane, world.
These companies are able to make it seem as though their sole ambition is to optimise and improve their systems for the greater good. But this rhetoric distracts us from the fact that they are ushering in a new kind of “surveillance capitalism”, whereby a small number of entities extract enormous amounts of wealth through their access to data that is generated by us, the public.
So how is it that you extract wealth from something? By using it to produce something that people want. There is, after all, no skim to be had off the revenues that people don;t voluntarily send your way in a free market system.
Thus, in order to collect that wealth to be had from processing data the tech giants like Facebook and Google must produce something from that data that we the punters desire enough to be handing over the cash for it.
And what is the purpose of our having an economy? That we the punters get more of what we desire. So, logically, it seems a pretty good idea that we offer access to the data to see what of value can be produced from it.
We can, perhaps, make the argument that public processing of that data will produce more value. No, really, stop laughing at the back there. We can make the argument, however ridiculous it is. Indeed, let us do so. And now let us test that argument, properly.
Google, Facebook, Amazon, the British public sector, start ups around the world, all gain access to the data. Then we see who produces something worth having from it.
Now guess who will argue hardest against this approach? Yep, those insisting that the public sector would do better in such a scenario but we’ better not actually do it and find out.
In the years to come, this will give the state a far stronger negotiating position on resources, both digital and physical, as well as on the practical applications of this potentially world-altering technology. It is absolutely essential that publicly powered technology is answerable to public power.
Equal access will be denied because certain people wouldn’t like the answer.