Big Tech Is Hoarding Data that Humanity Needs: Column

YouA Korean commercial airliner carrying 269 people departed from its course into Soviet airspace in September 1983. A Soviet fighter plane intercepted the aircraft and shot it down using an air-to–air missile. Everybody onboard perished.

In an effort to prevent similar tragedies, Reagan ordered that the US military make available the new Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS satellites are able to send exact beacons down the Earth which, when combined with other signals, give users precise locations. The change in policy wasn’t costless. It cost billions to build the satellites, send them up into space, and maintain them. US military thought location information was strategic, and scrambled the signal so no one else could. But Reagan believed having everyone use GPS would be worth it – not only because it could save lives. It can also encourage innovation and advancement. He was correct. GPS was a breakthrough in innovation, from fleet management to smartphones to create new global markets and enable societal advancement at scale.

Maybe it’s time to take the GPS lessons and apply them to digital platforms.

In our data age, access to data is increasingly crucial – whether for economic success, innovation, or human survival. However, data distribution isn’t always fair. Very few companies have access to large amounts of data. This data is not accessible to the rest of humanity.

Accessing data in a distorted way isn’t just an issue of economics. To make good decisions, we all require facts and data. Our ability to make informed decisions is hindered if we have only limited access to the data. This is an incredibly wasteful way to lose potential insight and advance. Insufficient data can make us less knowledgeable and lead to poor choices, both individually and collectively.

Mobility could be made more sustainable and efficient by allowing data access. Tesla’s cars currently collect massive amounts of data via sensors that are sent to the mothership. That data is only used to advance Tesla’s self-driving capabilities. However, the data can be much more beneficial. This data could help us identify unsafe roads and street streets which need pedestrian crossings. A better road safety system could prevent traffic deaths and save millions of lives every year. This would allow for innovation. Currently, many public transportation companies have data agreements with Google.

Or take Alzheimer’s: the illness is likely caused by a combination of factors. It is necessary to combine genetic and environmental data in order to develop a treatment. But that’s impossible because large industry players keep the relevant data to themselves. This isn’t just a problem for treating Alzheimer’s; it applies to most illnesses that affect humanity.

Recent reports have been extensive about the approaching global food crisis. It’s difficult to sustain nine billion people. We discovered that a single war can lead to global food insecurity. It’s clear we need to grow smarter and use food more efficiently. We need to know what people eat, when they eat it and what crops are grown where. That data is already being collected, but it’s guarded by monopoly players in agricultural technology as well as dominant social media companies. Humanity loses as Big Tech makes money.

There is a simple solution that can be implemented and it’s powerful. As with all other common goods like security, justice, basic educational and infrastructure, the government must take action. Government action in accessing data is both practical and well-tested. When data was owned by large corporations, we have already made it accessible. For instance, in the 1950s, the US government forced AT&T to settle an antitrust lawsuit by mandating that all patents of its famous Bell Labs be opened to US businesses, including key transistor patents. It was the beginning of what is now known as Silicon Valley. This allows for more startups than just incumbents, which increases the chances of innovative breakthroughs. It also provides resilience to society in times of crisis.

Having large digital monopolists open their data troves to others won’t take anything from them. They can continue to use the data they have, but when others can do so, too, it will spread opportunities and emphasize human ingenuity—rather than reward brutal resource hoarding.

We face substantial challenges around the world – autocratic regimes engaged in wars of aggression, pandemics threatening our health, climate change, societal polarization. Some governments choose to restrict information access for their citizens, to bank more data and less knowledge. That’s a dead end. Armed forces lose in battle, and businesses in the marketplace are affected by this lack of vital data. More is at stake than that: societies without data cannot advance and humanity loses its resilience.

While it may be possible to protect autocracies and monopolies in the short-term, restricting access does not solve the major problems we are facing. The successes of both democracy and markets tell us that the free flow of information is crucial – that to know more about the world leads to better informed decisions.

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