In 1993, The New Yorker ran a cartoon that has since become iconic, about two dogs on a computer surfing the internet, one saying to the other, “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” And I think, 25 years ago we had a sense that the internet gave us speed, it gave us variety and choice and it gave us anonymity. What we now know is that it is almost the exact opposite. By all means, the internet still gives us speed, it still gives us choice — perhaps even too much — but one thing it absolutely does not do is give us anonymity. In fact, those dogs, were they surfing the internet today, we would know what their breed is, we would know what their colour is, we would know what dog biscuit they ate, we would know how often they went for a walk, with who and where they paused and for what reason — and on and on.
The phenomenon we now find ourselves in is sometimes called “surveillance capitalism” and the essence of it is that when we use the internet and become anything but anonymous in our habits and perhaps even in our thinking, there are entities and people that can capitalize on this and commercialize the data that’s generated by our surfing. But the real factor here is that data isn’t simply an economic resource, it has dimensions that extend to the health of our democracy, it has dimensions that extend to what we see ourselves as individuals (i.e., our privacy and our habits), they extend into things like public security, public health, the quality of the air we breathe, and so these are balances that have to be struck.
What might they be? There’s five balances that have to be struck. The first is data as a commercial entity, as it were. The second is to balance the commercial potential of data with the privacy concerns and our rights as citizens to our own data. Third would be the public security element, to make sure that data is used to increase public security, not decrease it. Fourth is a nation or institution-building element, which is to say, just as we created a national broadcaster, one could make the same case for data streaming and for data infrastructure. And last, and not least, we have to think about the preservation, indeed the enhancement, of our democracy.
And so we have these five imperatives — what weight we give to them, how we prioritize them, in what sequence we deal with them is all open for discussion. But the bottom line here is that countries and communities need a strategy, or they need an approach to data — not having an approach is not good enough. The purpose of the CIGI essay series is to stimulate thinking and action on what exactly we might do to improve data governance.