The Data Divide

Sean Martin McDonald | FrontlineSMS | February 5, 2013

...[T]he digitization of interactions means that every time we carry a smart phone, send a text message, or buy something online, we’re creating value for someone. A lot of it, as it turns out. These days, information isn’t just power, it’s big money.

Telecommunications and online services companies are posting some of the world’s largest profits by doing two, transformational things: collecting huge amounts of data, and using it to increase profit margins. Everyone, from Google to governments, is realizing the value of well-defined, correlated, and usable information. This is where online service providers have made so much progress- in collecting data on nearly everything they touch and a number of things they probably shouldn’t. More importantly, though, these organizations have developed algorithms and refining processes yield clear insights from otherwise unmanageably large data sets, enabling them to drive value from us. And all of their interactions with us.

As it stands, we have all given up any ownership interest we may have in that value, even though our interactions are the ones creating it. For the most part, the decisions about the morality of data capture, ownership, and licensing practices have been buried in the corners of unread terms of service agreements. Service providers have been free to set, and more concerning, unilaterally change, the agreements that determine how billions of people’s most personal information is treated. And while there have been some early challenges (like the outcry over Instagram recently), most web platforms do so with impunity. The legal community hasn’t been particularly quick, or consistent, in recognizing the increasingly vital role played by telecommunications technologies and the digital data they create...