Surf’s over: Reign of the data kings

I was holding a pack of blank DVDs in my hand and fretting over the price. It was 2004 when DVDs cost a buck each. How much would I have to spend to ensure I could restore my files when (not if) my computer crashed?

The store owner saw my hesitation and called out in an ironic tone: “It’s only your data.”

I got it. One failure of the heads that float over a computer’s fragile hard drive and my data would be trashed. Articles, writing, letters, thousands of emails, images, lectures, PowerPoint slides, legal documents, business correspondence, music, films, books – all of it is my data, and my data is me.

These days, I don’t worry about buying DVDs because we all have access to “the cloud” (really a bunch of racked machines in vast, climate-controlled warehouses). Our futures consist of even more data – petabytes, even exabytes of it.

Now, suppose there were barriers between me and my stuff?

What Ajit Pai, chair of the United States’ Federal Communications Commission, engineered in December, 2017, was to kill regulations preventing large and small telecommunications firms like AT&T and Sprint from deciding what websites we visit, and how quickly they might load. The new regulation ended rules that ensured gamers, film-watchers, readers and social media fans would pay the same for their connections.

With a pen stroke, the regulation ended a web without tiers or tracks, without classes and castes.

Neutrality has to do with fairness. Whether you or I agree on what we like and approve of, we all stand by the basic democratic ideal our Charter or Constitutional rights don’t put barriers in the way of us pursuing our (legal) preferences.

The web is delivered to different communities at wildly varying prices and speeds, but the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, nonetheless, considers broadband connections an essential service, a utility like heat or power. With unlimited access, it shouldn’t cost more to play World of Warcraft than to visit a poetry website. The telecom’s job has been to provide the service, not judge content.

A paying user couldn’t be prevented from visiting whatever websites they wished. Past tense.

In the post-neutrality world, telecoms will legally be able to throttle (slow down) your access to websites; charge as much as they wish for you to visit sites or use their services; or bar you from visiting sites entirely.

Our physical lives are increasingly a blend of the tangible and digital. If you’ve got a smart thermostat or digital assistant running your home, your house is connected to what is called the “Internet of things.” Embedded in our cars are dozens of computers which, like all devices, require software upgrades, patches and fixes. We’re hot-swapping a world of things for a world of data.

If you have a digital wallet, are paid and pay your bills online, get your entertainment and perform your work online now, what will the environment look like in 10 years? In 20? Access to information – our own and that produced by others – will be like breathing.

If you use YouTube, better hope your network provider likes it too. If the telecom doesn’t, or decides to go into competition with Google over a video-sharing site, they could slow down the site, charge more for it or block it altogether. There’s nothing to prevent a telecom from deciding HBO is immoral, The Guardian is too left-wing and the default site when we load a browser will be the telecom’s homepage. It can direct traffic to itself and cut off roads leading elsewhere. How many minutes are you prepared to wait as the next episode of your favourite Netflix show is buffering? How many interruptions are you prepared to put up with before you cave in and take a telecom’s apparently equivalent service?

The typical response to scenarios, like the ones above, are encomia about the way a market economy guarantees choice so that nobody need tolerate unfair business practices. Such reassurance reminds me of banks that used to be filled with trained human tellers, now replaced by machines that charge me service fees to retrieve my own money. Because we think this is normal, we accept it. It’s a lot harder to regain freedoms than to protect them before they’re lost.

In democracies like Canada, we’ve decided access to education (being taught how to negotiate and think about data), libraries (data beneficial to us) and literacy (decoding data) are rights and necessities. They are crucial to perpetuating the world we’ve fashioned.

There will come a time when most of our intellectual lives (books, cultural artifacts like music or film), memories (pictures, videos, diaries, letters), creative work (music we’ve composed, art we’ve made, film we’ve directed) will exist only on other people’s networked computers. Because the web is a global system, what happens in one place — particularly the United States, through which some 70 per cent of the web’s data flows — affects what happens everywhere else.

Telecoms, already some of the most powerful forces on the planet, rule over people.

Telecoms are the data kings, the royal powers that are supposed to support, not control, our democracy.

Consider, as I did the day I stood with a bundle of DVDs, what your data is worth to you. If you and your whole family’s data were wiped out, what would you be left holding? My decision in then was to buy the DVDs. After all—it’s my data.

Tim Blackmore is a professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University.