Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Is Regulating Big Data Possible?

The era of Big Data officially began about ten years ago, when the corporate internet got it in their heads that data could be harvested and later mined for the purposes of business growth and expansion.  They realised that, although they did not know how to use all of the data available, one day they would, thereby creating the need to start collecting as much data on internet users as possible.  Now, some are calling on the world's biggest tech companies to be regulated in the same way that utilities are.

OZON Group’s CEO Maelle Gavet is among those who believe that companies such as Facebook and Google cannot be trusted to self-regulate in terms of protecting consumer privacy or guarding against data breaches.  She believes that it is time for regulators to step in and put some buffer between tech companies and the customers they serve.  The dichotomy for Gavet - and those who share her opinion - is one of how much regulation is appropriate.  It is a legitimate dichotomy.

Gavet explains in a Wired Magazine article that internet technology has certainly made the world a better place, in the same way that energy companies and telecoms have.  She also explained that she is not in favour of politicians who go so overboard in regulation as to stifle progress and innovation.  At the same time, she believes that corporate self-regulation is not reality.  So, where to draw the line?

It is clear that there will always be some amount of tension between commercial and social responsibilities.  A company such as Facebook does owe its shareholders a fiduciary responsibility to make them money.  By the same token, they have an equal responsibility to not abuse the customers who use their product.  Harvesting, mining and selling data seems to go well beyond commercial responsibility and into the area of customer abuse.

Any regulations that are put in place, such as the European Union's recent right to be forgotten law, have to find the delicate balance between business freedom and consumer rights.  Regulations have to consider everything from Big Data training to a corporate infrastructure always seeking to maximise returns.  Perhaps one of the reasons the world has been so slow to regulate is the fact that no one quite knows how to do it yet.

Consumers vs Politics

In her closing paragraph, Gavet says, “we need to find a balance between companies, governments and individuals about data and the right to privacy.”  Unfortunately, just as she maintains that self-regulation among tech companies is a fantasy, so is protecting the rights of individuals within the arena of government.  Government, by definition, takes away rights rather than protecting them.

In a world of cloud computing and superfast broadband connections, any talk of regulating tech companies must not start with the idea of balance.  Indeed, the scales should be tipped demonstrably in favour of individual privacy and security.  The needs of government and big business must, by necessity, not outweigh those of consumers.

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