Government’s role in regulating access to personal data

Yuval Noah Harari recent wrote an article for The Atlantic where he posed the question, “How do you regulate the ownership of data?” Professor Harari argues in the article that data is the most important asset today, moving ahead of land and machinery.  “Politics will be a struggle to control the data’s flow”, says Professor Harari.

Last spring saw the United States Congress’ struggle to at least map out a course through the turbulent waters of data privacy as members of the House of Representatives and Senate took the opportunity to grill Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about his company’s handling of personal data obtained from the social media giant by a consultancy.

Part of this struggle may be due in part to the popularity of social media network platforms. Facebook has climbed from a digital bulletin board developed in the early 2000s in an Ivy League college dorm room to a global subscribership of over two billion people.  Former president Barack Obama’s Twitter following is in the millions while the current president, Donald Trump, is not shy or slow to taking to Twitter to either connect with and inform his base of supporters or attack the traditional media for what he perceives as unfair coverage of his administration.

Professor Harari notes that users of social media network platforms have not reached the point where they are ready to stop feeding the “attention merchants.”  Speaking on the difficulty subscribers may have in exchanging personal data for “free” services, Professor Harari points out that:

“But it, later on, ordinary people decide to block the flow of data, they are likely to have trouble doing so, especially as they may have come to rely on the network to help them make decisions, and even for their health and physical survival.”

Professor Harari offered up one solution, nationalization of data, to stem the abuses that corporations may impart on addicted social media and internet consumers, but admits that just because an asset is in the hands of government doesn’t mean things will necessarily go well.  Hence the question, how should the ownership of data be regulated?

The question will require public policymakers and politicians go through the exercise of defining “personal data.”  Would personal data be any characteristic about you? Would it be about any marker, no matter how temporary or permanent, that can be attached to you?  Must the “data” be something that the consumer actually produced?

Politically, attention merchants would want a narrow reading of the definition of personal data.  A narrower reading of personal data means being able to obtain more information pursuant to fewer restrictions. While this outcome would be ideal for corporate entities in the business of brokering data, I don’t see Republicans, even with their mantra of promoting business, enthusiastically endorsing less restrictive collection of personal data given the public’s concern for privacy.

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