Who Does Not Benefit From The Rise of Big Data?
A new digital era has emerged, transitioning the economic structure to a platform economy. This transition has led to some hidden causes of concern, showcased by the rise of big data and its significant privacy issues. Should governments intervene?
The reorganization of the economy to a dominating online presence in the platform economy era is explicit in the rise of Amazon, Uber, and Netflix, to name a few. Companies have shifted their business model to generate an online profile and exploit the consumer’s shift to the frequent use of smartphones and electronics, facilitating a rise of digitally based capitalism. The idea of 'big data', which underpins the concept of the platform economy, has laid the foundations for this structural shift. This idea is often side-lined with the impact and, in particular, the social justice consequences of this global structural transition.
The Hidden Causes of Concern
The rise of the internet and new technology has paved the way for 'big data', which companies treat as a significant asset that aids profit maximization. This differs from the typical conventional data due to its variety, volume, and velocity. Big data is not simply a one-dimensional record set, unlike its counterpart, commercial, traditional data, as it now can retain consumer information and behavior. Big data is distinct due to these 3 V's, which define its characteristics, the most significant being its extraordinary size regarding the data set and its ability to relate and contain information on human behavior and interactions. These distinct characteristics of big data set it apart from its predecessor.
Companies with access to interpret and analyze big data can see how long consumers spend on their site, what they are clicking on, how long they watch something for, what items are on their wish list, and what pages they follow. The extensive profile that companies can create regarding consumer behavior can be stored and used to generate an algorithm that matches their preferences. This tailored algorithm advances a company’s profits and engagement as it can show each consumer their desires and preferences. The newfound significance of data has been stressed by the Economist, which suggested that data is "the oil of the digital era".The owners of big data are essentially capable to reach utmost prosperity since not only that it can advance the company that the individual owns but it can also be sold to other companies seeking to acquire the information.
The whole concept of companies profiting from private information and trading it among themselves undoubtedly sparks cause for concern from a consumer’s perspective. Companies’ ability to store and access private information through the ‘consent’ of cookies and ads further leaves people open to security breaches and makes consumers vulnerable. Although 'consent' has been given, the terms and conditions are typically extensive and challenging to comprehend. In other cases, such as Instagram, consumers have no option but to agree to the terms and conditions. As such, consumers are signing away their rights to their information, unaware of what companies are gaining from this.
The unlawful gains debate is evident with many websites asking for approval and consent to cookies operating on the website, which can be termed the ‘Cookie Law’, which requires users to consent for the website to gather 'cookies' or data files and store information. These cookies create behavior profiles that enable the website to generate personalized ads. Access to this data also allows for precise geolocation, undermining one’s privacy. Although internet users do have the option to ‘manage settings’ the default and easier option is to ‘accept all’ terms to browse the website quickly. This has led to the notion of 'surveillance capitalism', which has generated a new form of power for companies. Companies can build these consumer profiles out and expand to predict future trends based on current behavior and markets. These behavioral future markets have allowed companies operating on the platform economy to grow significantly wealthy while leaving consumers exploited. This hidden cause of concern, which people are often oblivious to, has severe social and justice ramifications.
Firms need to be more transparent regarding their data policies, as seen by the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal. The scandal involved Facebook persistently contending that they do not sell consumer data. Yet, in 2018 it was recorded that Cambridge Analytica had taken the data of around 50 million Facebook users. News broke out regarding Facebook sharing its data with other companies, creating data-sharing agreements. This allowed other companies access to their consumers’ data, which they were oblivious to. This obstruction of privacy and safety is undoubtedly a concern for justice.
Another cause of concern is the inability of non-profits to fully benefit from big data. Non-profits may utilize data to help developing nations gather information regarding poverty levels, track the spread of deadly diseases to help contain outbreaks or use data to fuel social justice movements. However, it needs to be processed to effectively utilize data, with data visualization being a critical component for analysis. This crucial way of interpreting the data is complex and demands highly trained and skilled workers with experience with large data sets.
Some non-profit organizations do not have the financial resources that large tech companies such as Facebook have and thus cannot utilize big data structures to their benefit. The facilities required to enable the efficient use of big data range from the upfront infrastructure cost, such as the technology utilized to operate the big data platforms, to the management and maintenance costs. These are a substantial financial burden which has been estimated to be around $1million a year. This has enlarged the disparity, leaving those who cannot keep up with the digital revolution excluded while the more prominent companies' profits grow exponentially. This factor is often forgotten regarding the narrative of the platform economy, which typically rests on employment issues, and the change to the labor force, which is in its own right a significant issue.
Should Governments Intervene?
Governments can be perceived as an antidote to resolve the issue and protect their citizens, as showcased by the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Mark Zuckerberg's trial in front of Congress in 2018. Innovative policies are needed to address the security risk we face from companies storing these consumer profiles and make it explicit how and what they are doing with the data collected. For governments to protect customers from surveillance capitalism, regulation must be enacted to resolve the issue of storing and selling personal data. A common global framework must be adopted to solve this issue globally and effectively so the rules are clear, regardless of the country. Thus, companies operating within the platform economy and utilizing big data need to accept tighter regulations regarding their use of data. This can be seen with the EU’s introduction of a set of rules on big tech companies, which would enable companies to comply with handing over data related to their algorithms to regulators and researchers.
The introduction of a significant restriction on digital platform operating companies showcases the need to protect consumers and signals the end of their exploitation. Digital Services Act is the most innovative and extensive to date, increasing the transparency for these companies and supposedly allowing consumers more choice and control over their data by having more flexibility in deciding what programs to install on their phones. Although this is a step in the right direction, these practices need to be adopted on a global framework and go further to fully protect consumers against the hidden concerns of these digital companies.
Change is needed, whether by increasing transparency and raising awareness of the risks when accepting the terms of conditions online or by creating stricter rules for companies to fully and clearly disclose their data collection practices. Until this is addressed, injustice will continue and leave people vulnerable to the rise and emergence of new technology as the platform economy expands.
Monsoon Modi is a recent graduate of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick
This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) December 2022 Issue