Big Data and Privacy in the Global Age: An Open Letter about a Closed Industry!


Picture Credit: “Casablanca” (1942) Warner Bros. Pictures. Used under the “Fair Use” doctrine.
Picture Credit: “Casablanca” (1942) Warner Bros. Pictures. Used under the “Fair Use” doctrine.


By James Walker – Editor

There has been a flurry of activity over the past few months concerning the issue of Internet data gathering, and the over-reach of government spying. From the revelations concerning the domestic NSA-PRISM program, to the seemingly endless chain of embarrassing international debacles stemming from Edward Snowden, the clandestine world of shadowy government data hoarding has received some intense scrutiny. Forget being the head of state for an allied nation, in this brave new world of government scrutiny, even the kid in the next dorm room is under surveillance, via their World of Warcraft account!

Understandably, there have been a number of anguished cries raised by these revelations. Civil society groups, government watchdogs, and “New World Order” conspiracy nuts alike have all raised the alarm. Even the national media in the US has shaken off some of the lethargy that afflicts it, and has fitfully resumed its role as the fourth estate, seeking to hold those in power accountable for their actions – or at least, hoping to make them vaguely uncomfortable when they appear on “Meet the Press.”

However, one of the most brazen calls for the government to restrain its hoarder-like sensibilities came from a coalition of tech industry giants – Google, Apple, Facebook, AOL, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, and LinkedIn. On Dec. 9 2013, these civic minded corporate citizens – who stride like colossi across the globe and represent the very essence of the modern, Mutli-National Corporate (MNC) ideal – sent an open letter to the governments of the world, laying out a series of “demands” to ensure the protection of public privacy, and curtail the nefarious specter of government control over “big data.” Apparently the Obama administration was paying attention, as on January 27th it came to an agreement with some of the industry leaders over public acknowledgement of government data requests.

This is all to the good you would think, however, the sheer irony of this particular group of companies looking to cry foul on unprecedented, unmitigated, and unapologetic data collection and analysis is quite breathtaking. A review of the ways in which each of these individual organizations captures and manipulates personal data would be far too long to read, and far too repetitive to be entertaining. Instead, let us focus on the 5 “demands” made, and their application in the private sector today, using Google as a group representative. After all, Google CEO Larry Page went on the record to state that transparency and privacy are vital elements of the modern world that are “[U]ndermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world. It’s time for reform.”

Global Governance Surveillance Reform: 5 Principal Demands

1) Limiting Governments’ Authority to Collect Users’ Information:  It is understandable that Google wants to  “codify sensible limitations on [Government] ability to compel service providers to disclose user data,” given that it consistently found itself the subject of a Human Rights backlash for assisting the Chinese government with data collection and censorship, in an effort to have open access to the Chinese market. Being pilloried for your cooperation with authoritarian regimes in order to make a buck will have that effect on you.

2) Oversight
 and Accountability: An area in which Google has a lot to teach the world about responsible data management.  In calling for a system whereby “Intelligence agencies seeking to collect or compel the production of information should do so under a clear legal framework in which executive powers are subject to strong checks and balances,” Google is doubtless calling upon its years of experience with litigation over the illegal collection and storage of user data. From Germany to the United States, Google has fought an ongoing battle with the “legal frameworks” of host states, presumably because they do not feel that they should be subject to any checks on their own executive’s power. Unfortunately for them, the US Federal Appeals Court recently did not agree, and the three-year case against the company in the US continues to rumble on…

3) Transparency About Government Demands: In a stirring expression of open social values, the notion is that “Transparency is essential to a debate over government’s’ surveillance powers and the scope of programs that are administered under those powers.” Google stands as a fine example of transparency in action in a globalized world, given that the company makes its enormous revenues ($50 Billion in 2012) from selling collected personal data to any company that wants to buy it, no matter how dubious the purposes may turn out to be. That is probably why Google was instrumental in killing off the California “Right to Know Act” in May of 2013. The bill would have forced tech companies to disclose exactly what information they were gathering on users – transparency in action, if you will – but that did not sit well with the industry as a whole, and so it was sunk beneath a bombardment of Silicon Valley lobbying.

4) Respecting the Free Flow of Information:The ability of data to flow or be accessed across borders is essential to a robust 21st century global economy.” It certainly is when your profit margin is dictated by such flows – but as previously mentioned, restricting flows can also be profitable when you comply with the authoritarian dictates of a repressive regime. “Governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally.”  Given the revelation that the NSA has been tapping the Google data center in the UK (via the British intelligence services) this is an understandable issue… however, could this also have anything to do with the complete deterritorialization of MNCs from local authority oversight, control, or taxation? Only a cynic would suggest that Google stands to gain considerably from being able to provide its internet services in the European Union without having to comply with stringent EU privacy regulations.

5) Avoiding Conflicts Among Governments:In order to avoid conflicting laws, there should be a robust, principled, and transparent framework to govern lawful requests for data across jurisdictions.” It is always to be applauded when there is a movement to avoid the jurisdictional positioning, unnecessary delays and frustrations inherent in jockeying for an advantageous position based solely on perceived benefits in divergent legal frameworks. Google knows all about this, given that it has fought tooth and nail to avoid answering cases across the globe. For example,  in the United Kingdom where Google makes huge revenues from UK traffic, channels its business income through Ireland in order to avoid paying UK taxes, and at the same time insists that the only jurisdiction it will answer to is in California. Why is Google so keen to avoid these kinds of legal shenanigans in the case of government overreach, when it is par for the course in MNCs?

The fact that there are real concerns for industry over the use and abuse of big data is significant. There is no doubt that the exponential rise of computing power and data analytics is fundamentally changing our relationship towards both government and industry, and that internet and tech giants are in a key position to effect how this evolution takes place. It is to be applauded that the industry is taking a proactive approach to the issue of individual privacy, and that they recognize the value inherent in consumer confidence. After all, their business relies upon it.

However, at the end of the day it comes across as disingenuous for the tech giants to claim that it is government and big data that are a dangerous mix. This notion is consistent with a trend in 21st century thinking, whereby government is seen as a necessary evil while neo-liberal free market enterprises are considered part of the solution, not the problem. The modern era provides both startling opportunities and dark possibilities for the use and abuse of personal data – but the idea of MNCs as guardians of individual privacy is simply laughable. To misquote Ronald Regan, the least reassuring sentence in the English language is “I’m from the Corporate Sector, and I’m here to help.”


James Walker is a first year MA student in Political Geography at UCLA, and an Editor for The Generation.



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