Law in the Internet Society
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Is Encouraging Competition The Answer To Spying?

-- By ShimengCheng - 15 Oct 2012

No doubt that behavior monitoring through activities on the net can generate enormous profits for email service providers, search engines and social network operators. Yet for individual user, there is virtually no way to prevent this from happening. Unless yourself become an email service provider, how can you ensure that your next email service provider will not secretly spy on you? How do you obtain the evidence that your information on social networks is being used in behavioral studies? Even if we outlaw behavioral studies through collection of private information, how can the governing administrative agency ensure the compliance with the ban when such studies are done by computer programs running behind the scene? My assumption in this essay is that it is technically impossible to achieve zero spying. The question then turns into whether we can minimize the amount of behavioral information produced through spying, and therefore curb the unjust enrichment of big service providers on the net.

One solution is to turn email service providers, search engines and social networks into public carriers and to impose certain public carrier duties on them. However, this requires huge government interference with the IT market and we do not trust the government to operate important functions in the net.

Ideally, we need a decentralized system to solve this problem – an invention like BitTorrent? that does not rely on one single entity in the net to complete certain functions. However, what email service and social network are different from file transmission is that the former two demand large storage place in order to complete their functions. Can we each contribute a little storage space in our computer to form a decentralized email system? Theoretically it is possible for everyone to set up his or her own email server so that we do not need email service providers. But that requires we each to have a computer that is connected to the internet 24/7, so that the data sent to us via the email protocol can be stored in our own computer while we are away. In comparison, through the economy of scale, commercial email service providers provide better services at a lower cost, and saves us from the trouble of maintaining our own email server. In the social network context, it is theoretically impossible to have a decentralized social network because it is the network effect and the collection of information that create value for every user. The reality is, if we want better, cheaper and advance services, we risk losing our privacies.

If it is technically and economically impossible for us to stop spying, can we make service providers compensate us for mining our private data? If Google offers us 10GB email accounts for free and in exchange doing behavioral studies through what we write in our emails, someone else may want to offer a better deal in order to get us to use their services. Microsoft started a loyalty program called Bing Rewards in 2010, giving Bing users credits that can be redeemed for products or gift cards. In order to receive credits, users not only have to conduct searches on Bing and to use other Bing features, they also must have installed the Bing toolbar, acquired a Windows Live ID and used Internet Explorer on a PC when conducting the search. No credit is given if Chrome, or Firefox, or Mac is used. Bing director Stefan Weitz explicitly stated in an interview that the program aimed to get Bing users to “have a conversation” with them about Bing features.

So Bing bribes users in order to compete with Google. If there is enough competition in the market of web searching, each search engine will presumably try to offer more to users in order to get more inputs in their search bars, which are the basis of their data mining. Moreover, each search engine in a competitive market will get less search requests comparing to that of Google gets today. Collectively, less behavioral information can be produced if the raw data pool is broken into multiple pieces belong to different service providers. Will service providers trade data among themselves in order to generate more behavioral information? Perhaps yes, but it is better than letting Google have almost the entire raw data pool. The same theory also applies to the email service market. In a more competitive market, not only users get better services, we also curb the total amount of behavioral information that service providers can produce.

The only question left is about social networks. Facebook differs from Gmail and Google Search in that Facebook's central function depends on each user's information input. It is the collection of billions of personal information that makes Facebook valuable. Whilst for Gmail and Google Search, their central functions – email and web searching, will not be affected if less people use these services. Thus, competition law seems not to be a good cure for our privacy issues in social networks, for the reason that if we break Facebook into several mini networks, we destroy the very value it creates.

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r2 - 16 Oct 2012 - 02:10:25 - ShimengCheng
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