Jan 17, 2013

The Big Data gold rush (and YOU are the gold)


In a recent article, Stéphane Grumbach and Stéphane Frénot argue that we are living in a period of digital disruption, where the digitization of everything, from organizations to our bodies, is emerging through the continued development and evolution of the information society.

The basic building block of this development is data. Data are now produced in such huge quantities that they are increasingly difficult to manage, store, visualize, and analyze. Here's a telling example: more video is uploaded to YouTube in one month than the 3 major U.S. networks created in 60 years.


The ramifications of big data are enormous for financial reasons. The authors estimate that Google realizes a turnover of a billion euros a year in France through the exploitation of such data, and they cite a McKinsey report that values the economic potential of Big Data at $300 billion for the U.S. healthcare system (e.g., personal health care metrics could be leveraged to offer tailored treatments).

As the expansion of cyberspace began to nurture the development of a data processing industry in the 1990s, personal data emerged as a new core resource in the information society. The development of Web 2.0 protocols created online communities where users could interact and exchange data through social media, blogs, wikis, photo and video sharing platforms. On top of this first layer of cross-sharing information patterns, a second information layer now adds a series of tags with relevant spatial, temporal, and personal information (who, what, why, where and when). Such data can be used by to anticipate human behavior in a variety of contexts, from purchasing habits to the diffusion of influenza epidemics.

In the United States, three Internet giants – Google, Facebook, and Amazon collect and store 80% of all the social data generated by the American population. Is this oligopoly legitimate given the huge economic, social, and geopolitical implications of the Big Data industry? The U.S. government thinks it is, as was confirmed two weeks ago by the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) decision not to sue Google for using its search engine to favor its own online services. However, the European Union (EU) has a different opinion, and a few days after the FTC announced dropping the Google investigation, the EU’s competition chief threatened with anti-trust charges and stated that Google is both “diverting traffic” and “abus[ing its] dominant position”. 

While it is not surprising that the U.S. government is (once again) backing U.S. corporations to maintain their competitive edge, it is more worrisome that Europe lags so far behind the U.S. when it comes to mapping, shaping, and exploiting cyberspace. Dominant players are sometimes helped in their monopolistic endeavor by the absence of strong competitors — and they get blamed for it.

Emerging powers such as China, Brazil, Russia and Iran are now leveraging strategic innovation to capture online data and use it to serve their geopolitical agenda (and they are more advanced than Europe in this respect). But there may be a day where, absent a credible European alternative, we may have to choose between the U.S. way and the Chinese way of regulating cyberspace. Who will you trust to store your digital life?


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