Nick's Notes

Torn

Regular readers of this blog will know three key things about me, if they have given any thought about the threads that run through these posts.

Firstly, I like the technology. Of course, it has to be used well and beneficially rather than just being something interesting for its own sake. But there are so many examples where that is the case that there is no doubt that information and communications technology is changing the world for the better.

Secondly, I value data privacy. I have written several times about how it is a very unbalanced pact between big tech companies and their users to give away services and software for free in return for unfettered access to their personal information, “reading” their emails and documents as well as tracking them, quite literally, all to serve adverts, or position “news” stories to influence their perspective. It is genuinely for this reason that I am prepared to pay more, and increasingly more, to buy Apple products knowing that any usage data collected is never sold on, and why I try to be as Google and Facebook free as possible.

Thirdly, the careful reader will recognise that I am very pro free markets. This extends to the role of the CIO as other writing in the CIO Connect Magazine and our Points of view shows. I have quoted Hayek, probably too much, and my firm belief that governance should be light touch and enabling rather than limiting has shown through much of my thinking in these areas.

It was therefore a surprise to me to be reading between Christmas and New Year about initiatives being started by Margrethe Vestager the Competition Commissioner of the European Union with a growing appreciation that she understood the issues, and articulated them in terms that I welcomed. In a speech in early December, and followed up during an interview with Martha Lane Fox in the guise of guest editor of Today Ms Vestager said, and I paraphrase, that she was concerned by the power of the “tech giants”, often US based, the unequal relationship regarding use of end users data and their ability to prevent start-ups from impacting their markets. In a discussion, and speech, that welcomed the benefits of digital technology and the benefits of the digital economy, she announced a study by “three experts to advise me on how a digital economy will affect markets and consumers – and how our competition rules should respond”. This report will be available in March.

My belief that the market will sort this out has been challenged by the free services some of the tech giants provide supported by advertising. At its most benign advertising can be ignored as companies rightly compete to let you know how good their product is. In the end you choose and tune the rest out. But with tech, and especially with the various psychological techniques employed to bind you into specific products and services this has broken down and there is the possibility, no more, that these massive tech organisations can exercise disproportionate influence. When you then introduce “state actors” into the mix we are in very dangerous territory.

I’m not yet convinced the European Commission will get it right. I have no idea how it can affect a global issue, especially if the US is uninterested. It is really unclear how EU ideas post March 19 will affect the UK.

But I’m torn, for the first time, between supporting a free market solution and regulation. Watch this space.

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