In my last article, Ungoverned Spaces, (shameless plug, I know) I mentioned briefly the deal between the Royal Niger Company and the British government that brought what is now known as Nigeria under the latter’s empire. I also mentioned cyberspace as being another ungoverned space but did not go much further than that for the sake of brevity. So I’ve decided to add a few more thoughts here, as something of a continuation.
As I posited previously, it was technological breakthroughs that opened up the world and, when technology developed enough to enable the bold and the brave to explore said world, it was logically never going to be done by governments. Sure, they could sponsor some expeditions, particularly if the government was a monarchy (which is subject to much fewer controls) but, in hindsight, governments were never going to sponsor the vast majority of expeditions. That was left to wealthy individuals and the largest companies. Their discoveries would then become part of the country of origin, but the concession they received was that they would be allowed to loot and administrate the newly discovered territories as much as they liked. It seems only fair, especially when you consider that the alternative was to allow a rival country (or its proxies) to take the initiative and conquer vast, resource-rich lands.
In the same vein, we have seen the explosion of technological breakthroughs in the past few decades, led by Moore’s law which states that overall processing power for computers doubles every 2 years. That particular law is beginning to reach its limits but, having held true for decades, you can see how these rapid technological jumps create capabilities that we are still not quite able to fully harness yet. Obviously, governments and other formal institutions cannot keep pace with it; thus innovation has been mostly left to the daredevils. And, with the practically non-existent costs of production, it has allowed for a system whereby once you prove your idea is valid as opposed to crazy, you can get funding by private investors literally in the billions of dollars.
However, besides the not-insignificant matters of convenience and cost, some of the behaviours and methods required to take control of these new territories (whether in physical or cyber space) are ruthless and cutthroat, something a government cannot afford to be seen doing in most cases. Citizens’ consciences can at times be strong enough to run a government out of power, after all, so it is best to allow private companies do the dirty work and simply turn a blind eye to it. If you think about the killing, looting and whatnot of early European settlers in Africa for example, you can understand why a government would not care to be too involved. Similarly, the cutthroat practices we hear of by Internet companies are something that modern governments would certainly not want to be caught doing. Take for instance the 2011 report that Amazon, rather than install air conditioning in one of its warehouses, found it much cheaper to simply station ambulances outside to resuscitate any worker who fainted in the summer heatwave. A government cannot afford to be caught engaging in such practices; better to let the private sector do the dirty work.
Eventually, of course, governments sometimes have to take over control and administration because, face it, that’s what governments (are supposed to) do best. So when the Royal Niger Company runs into administrative problems combined with an indigenous revolt and also has friction with neighbouring territories run by rival European nations, it was only logical for the British empire to step in and take over control of the area, particularly as the old enemy, the French, had solid control over many of the surrounding areas. To ignore the Lower Niger area would be to surrender the entire Western Africa to the French. Not an option.
Back to the Future
Anyway, I see the Internet as currently going through the relatively early phases of private sector exploration. The early tech giants, like Microsoft for instance, were able to grow to stupendous heights and the worst they suffered was some antitrust litigation which meant they broke the business up into a bunch of parts. Painful, but hardly fatal. However, the new tech giants peddle a significantly different type of product from their predecessors; a product that lives and breathes on its own, and one that has aspects to it which are uncomfortably close to the lifeblood of society. As such, one can regard Google, Facebook, Twitter etc as the new Royal Niger Company, and others. In the uncharted world of cyberspace, these companies have discovered pure gold. They have tendered their taxes and other royalties (like access to certain data) to the government and the latter has allowed them pretty much free reign to experiment and conquer as much as they could. But now they seem to be reaching the growth level where serious and potentially existential problems begin to develop; the public is getting to know more about their operations, getting more uncomfortable with their methods and practices; governments are being forced to take action against them for unethical actions; they are found to be avoiding taxes (a moral crime, because avoiding taxes is legal, evading them is not), and all sorts of things.
Their problem, as I see it, is that they have harvested and profited immensely from a product that is extremely sensitive to both governments and people; personal data. Before these internet giants, you see, personal data was held mainly by two parties; the person and their government. However even then there was a limit to how much personal information could be held by anyone outside of the person who generated that data. Life back then was blissfully anonymous. But now you could venture to argue that in certain locales, Facebook would be better able to take a census than the local government there. And at almost no cost whatsoever.
To further compound the issue, it’s not only the data you divulge that is stored, but by clever computing and also comparing it with others’ data, your future movements and thoughts can also be predicted with some accuracy. I suspect that if we knew all the possibilities of what could be done with our data we wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.
In the End
I don’t know how long it will take, but eventually these extraordinary powers the tech giants have may likely be taken from them or otherwise adjusted to make it less of a data monopoly, for the simple reason that the data being held is too sensitive and too valuable. Whether the takeover or dismemberment of these companies is by a government or otherwise, as well as what kind of compensation to offer the companies affected, is a decision that will likely be dependent on the circumstances that bring the action about.
But I suspect that it will happen sooner or later, probably triggered by a combination of a massive data breach in one company and the revelation of manipulation of large swathes of the population by another. It might not necessarily be this exact combination, but I use it as an example to show that, in such a scenario, the public outcry could be such that someone would have to act. And I’m willing to bet that there are government agencies and personnel who have already drafted ideas on how to cut some of these companies down to size and would be more than happy for the opportunity to.
Furthermore there are already private companies and citizens movements which are attempting to challenge the status quo, it is worth noting. I suppose we could look at the rise of anti-Facebook groups, alternatives like Ello, Steemit or Minds, the last two of which aim to pay users for their time and interactions. Of particular note is Solid, a project initiated by the man who is typically called father of the Internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The idea behind Solid, marketed as making the Internet function the way it was designed to, is that your data should belong to you, stored in a “pod” whether at your home, office or with an online provider, and you get to decide who has access to what part of it. While these all have grand ideas, most of them are not very big. At least not yet. A couple of major disasters and these “alternative” solutions could become dominant players, or at least their ideas penetrate the mainstream enough that it gets taken up by an Information Commissioner somewhere. And as you should know, disasters are fond of coming in twos or threes.
Of course this is not the only possible outcome; indeed it’s not meant as a prediction but more of a warning because such a scenario depends on how the tech giants adjust to their new roles and responsibilities as well as how they manage the expectations of the world’s public. Which is why Facebook taking forever to recognise that it has become a news platform was rather disappointing. After all, you are whatever your customers say you are.