Data fuel the world economy, while data owners rule the world economy – more and more. In a networked society with a handful of big tech companies, equipped with vast server farms and the competence to generate knowledge from data, knowledge is distributed asymmetrical. This inequality induces an imbalance of power.
From about 7,3 billion people around the world in 2015, 4,88 billion used mobile phones. According to Deloitte about one billion wireless Internet of Things (IoT)-devices where bought in 2015. Individuals, organizations and objects are always better trackable. Due to big data, algorithms and machine learning (AI) their performances are also more and more exactly predictable. Big time datafication promises profits in such diverse areas as retail, health, education, gaming, politics or military. Data processing firms and cloud computing providers like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft or IBM might see the earth as a ball filled with data to play with. These companies could respect the privacy and integrity of their customers and act beneficially. They could provide helpful information such as navigation data or predictions about life threatening infections to individuals and the public. Yet they could also act in a damaging way. They could apply their knowledge to endanger fair market mechanisms or free elections, to manipulate individuals or to destroy things. Data in themselves are bland. The danger lies in the intentions of data manufacturers and in the use of data.
There is a risk in letting a few companies control the majority of the global data and in the tolerance towards their habit to share data (e.g. Amazon-shopping on Facebook). This could lead to opacity and market failure. It endangers the freedom of choice for individuals and the freedom of competition. It undermines the free flow of trade that is based on reliable information. A data oligopoly not only disrupts the world economy. It also has a deep impact on individuals and society.
Knowledge capital, financial capital and social capital are closely intertwined. The main trouble with this ecosystem is not the commercial use or the misuse of big data. It is not the pricing power of some firms, not hacking and not even the threat to privacy. The real danger is in the structure – the custom to let private companies generate knowledge and determine which information and which not goes when and where to whom.
The main hazard for society lies in the knowledge control of a data possessing and processing oligopoly that could act like a mega manipulation machine. Firms like Google or Microsoft collect, filter and provide information to individuals or the public to mainly serve their own interests, be it financial, social, political or others. The power to manipulate information flows makes the data oligopoly the most powerful clique of the digitized world. This clique has an immense power over always online smart phone- or smart chip-outfitted users. Since it acts transnationally – occasionally utilizing loopholes – it also has a much broader impact than national governments.
This power structure requires close monitoring and correction. Any measure has to guarantee the free participation of every market player in a transparent and fair data driven economy in the long-term. Instruments like technical solutions, education and law enforcement should function worldwide. The impulse to discuss such measures should come from Europe. A Multi-stakeholder debate would be a beginning. Prior to that profound clarification is needed.