“Entrepreneurs Turn Oligarchs”

Once, we saw the potential unsurpassed human liberation available through information technology. However, Silicon Valley, as shown in the NSA scandal, increasingly has become intimately tied to the surveillance state. Technology has enabled powerful firms – including Verizon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google – to channel everyone’s email and cellphone calls to the national security apparatus….

…If my emails to friends and family arguably constitute a potential threat to national security, that’s one thing. The massive monitoring and largely unapproved tapping into our data for profit is quite another.Google, which, in the first half of 2012, took in more advertising dollars than all U.S. magazines and newspapers combined, has amassed an impressive list of privacy violations, notes the Huffington Post….

Even Apple, arguably the most iconic Silicon Valley firm, has been hauled in front of courts for alleged privacy violations. For its part, Consumer Reports recently detailed Facebook’s pervasive privacy breaches, including misuse of information as detailed as health conditions, details an insurer could use against you, when someone is going out of town (convenient for burglars), as well as information pertaining to everything from sexual orientation to religious and ethnic affiliation.

Despite ritual denials about such invasions of privacy, the new communications moguls have little reason to stop, and lots of financial reasons to continue. As for concerns over privacy, the new oligarchs take something of a blasé attitude. Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman, in 2009 responded to concerns over privacy with this gem: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

…Americans need to wake up to the reality of this new, and increasingly ambitious, ruling class. “The sovereigns of cyberspace,” like the all-powerful Skynet computer system in the “Terminator” series, are only recently focused on politics, and have concentrated largely in the Democratic Party (where the price of admission tends to be cheaper than in the old-money-dominated GOP). And it’s not just money they are throwing at the game, but also the skillful political use of technology, as amply demonstrated in President Obama’s re-election.

Like the moguls of the early 20th century, who bought and sold senators like so many cabbages, the new elite constitute a basic threat to democracy. They dominate their industries with market shares that would make the old moguls blush. Google, for example, controls some 80 percent of search, while Google and Apple provide the operating system software for almost 90 percent of smartphones. Similarly, more than half of Americans, and 60 percent of Europeans, use Facebook, making it easily the world’s dominant social media site. In contrast, the world’s top 10 oil companies account for barely 40 percent of the world’s oil production.

…One innovative approach, as Jaron Lanier suggests in his new book, “Who Owns the Future,” includes forcing companies to pay for the privilege of using your data, thereby “spreading the wealth” from a few hegemons to the wider populace.

…What needs to be accepted, by both conservatives and liberals, is that privacy matters, as does the threat posed to democracy by oligarchy. Until people focus on the potential for evil before us and discuss ways to curb abuses, this small and largely irresponsible class, likely in league with government, will usher in not the promised cornucopia but a gilded-age reign of Big Brother.

via Newgeography.com.

I think it would be highly appropriate for companies to be required to pay for the privilege of using our data.

I have long been annoyed by the various ways intellectual property law remains inconsistent with its supposed purpose – I am all in favor of creators having protection, but too often it seems like actual creators are denied protections they want while non-creators get to claim things like Leonardo or Mozart. This tends to make it look more like the real “purpose” behind such laws is to protect illegal grabs:

In upholding the law, the Golan majority explicitly endorsed the position that the public has no rights to the public domain. None. Under U.S. law as declared by the Court in this case, copyright is now officially “asymmetric.” While those who have copyrights enjoy vested, legally protected rights, “[a]nyone has free access to the public domain, but no one, after the copyright term has expired, acquires ownership rights in the once-protected works.” The majority could not seem to imagine that the public had rights other than “ownership” over a free, collective culture. In a dissenting opinion, Justices Breyer and Alito asked “Does the [Constitution] empower Congress to enact a statute that withdraws works from the public domain, brings about higher prices and costs, and in doing so seriously restricts dissemination, particularly to those who need it for scholarly, educational, or cultural purposes – all without providing any additional incentive for the production of new material?” Their answer was “No.”

What works were at issue in Golan? As Breyer described, “foreign works published abroad after 1923, of which there are many millions, including films, works of art, innumerable photographs, and, of course, books – books that (in the absence of the statute) would assume their rightful places in computer-accessible databases, spreading knowledge throughout the world.” Moreover, many of these were obscure orphan works (works with no locatable rightsholder) that are now effectively off limits to educators, film collectors, community orchestras, and database compilers who previously had the right to use them for free.

What are the limits on this decision? Could Congress recall the works of Shakespeare, Plato, Mozart and Melville from the public domain, and create new legalized monopolies over them? It is hard to imagine anything more contrary to the First Amendment – would privatizing Shakespeare by government decree abridge freedom of speech? – or to the attitudes of those who penned the Copyright Clause that limits Congress’s power to create new exclusive rights. Yet if one reads Golan, one searches in vain for any limiting principle on Congress’s actions. In this decision, Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion effectively denies the public domain any meaningful Constitutional protection. Under the U.S. Constitution, says this case, the public domain is “public” only by sufferance. It may be privatized at any moment, at the whim of the Congress and without violating the Bill of Rights.

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