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Do you cheer for the elephant or for the virus?

Submitted by Gianfranco Cecconi
on Wed, 10/14/2020 - 11:28

In my private time, I follow closely the challenges posed to our freedom and rights by the fast changes in society and the markets due to digital. I try to be balanced while, at the same time, not to get too comfortable on the mainstream ideas. In arguments, I like to take the least popular stance just for the sake of conversation and to understand better what's happening around me.

So, this morning, I got to my keyboard and wrote "The elephant and the virus" for the Support Centre for Data Sharing. It's easy to get outraged and up in arms by the enormous power of the American digital giants, the "GAFAM", the elephants of the digital world, but are they really a problem?

With the team, with legislators, and small and big entrepreneurs across Europe we're working hard to set the basis for an ethical, legal, technically sound and secure data sharing ecosystem. Those big players and their influence on the technology and networks we can use today for data sharing is significant. I wonder, however, if that is a distraction and we should rather worry about other, more subtler issues that don't get that often in the news or on the digital agenda of parliaments.

What do you reckon?    

G.

Hi G, I respect your decision to take the least popular stance as playing the devil's advocate normally triggers passionate conversations across the board!

To answer your question: no, I do not think GAFAM's are a problem, though the media often portrays them as such. As you correctly point out, the elephants in the tech world can play a significant role in data sharing, and in the technology space as a whole. However, I'm missing the conversation of what they can do to combat the virus. Due to their size and capabilities, to name a few, they can support institutions across the world in combatting the spread of the disease.

My question is: If the large elephants have been active in sharing data to support our combat against COVID, why hasit not been actively reported on and why is there still a focus on their 'power' 'size' and monopoly and how its bad for the SMEs? If they haven't been actively sharing data to combat the pandemic, then why not? 

Thanks for getting back to me Eline. My reference to the "virus" has actually nothing to do with COVID-19. It's curious to see how our minds always go to that, these days. We live in strange times :-) 

With "viruses" I was referring to small players: to the small technology companies that do not get into the news but can be as unethical as it gets with our data. Think of Cambridge Analytica, at the time of the Facebook scandal. They were a "virus", small, unheard of, not in the spotlight, and see how much damage they've done.

<3 elephants, but they're easy to shoot when they go berserk and endanger someone's life. You can't shoot a virus.

I don't think that all of the focus we put on targeting the big players - the elephants - is healthy. It creates the condition for a fertile underwood of small malicious operators. 

Perhaps the easiest explanation for the media's focus on the big players primarily is the sheer amount of exposure they already have. They come to mind the easiest and there is such of wealth of information on them already. Cambridge Analytica was a company no one had ever heard of until the scandal came to light. I would assume the tech giants have a good sense of the smaller companies out there but media generally becomes aware of them only when something happens.

You make a really strong point in stating that the focus should not only be on the big companies but I wonder how that focus can be shifted? How would we become aware of the companies not covered in the mainstream channels?

To paraphrase Wilson in the Crown season 3: no major story lasts more than 48 hours, people are too hungry for the next scandal. To shift the focus away from the larger tech players we need something bigger than them, such as climate change, the elections, political upheaval a celebrity death - the big things that sell and grab peoples interest. From the international media scene, these are what's interesting. The local media news outlets that are currently struggling to stay alive are the ones reporting on the SMEs.

As they are not 'big' news, smaller companies rarely get the limelight on the international stage, unfortunately. They're in the news when they are bought out by the bigger companies, when there is a privacy or security scandal, or if they do something that gets them publicity (positive or negative). To change the focus we'd need to change the media business model, and potentially people's mindset on what is interesting news. 

... we need non-profits that could make their main objective educating people to the risks of their personal data being exploited, independently on the size of the exploiter :-/

There are so many analogies that come to mind. E.g. think of how money is donated for charitable work. The big funky projects tend to get the most attention - think of the story of the "Roundabout Play Pump" here - but their effectiveness is eclipsed by less funky though essential intervention like deworming (see here).

I know of such organisations in the space of digital rights, but their focus too is on attacking the giants. Probably, easier to get funded there.