Critical Websites as Public Utilities, Part 2

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waterworks_smallADOTAS – If we accept that society has the right to have a say in how utilities such as Facebook and Google are organized and operate, the next step is to apply the normal logic which is applied to other utilities impacting on the public good:

Do we want to encourage or discourage monopolies or competition? Do we want these utilities operated commercially or some form of state body? Should you need a license to be a search engine or social media site? What are the rules of conduct? Who will enforce those rules? What are the rights of individuals or organizations with regard to that conduct? What are legitimate grounds for appeal against decisions made by these utilities?

Here are some concrete examples:

  • Does Google have the right to refuse access to an individual or company?
  • Does Google have the right to refuse access to AdWords? On what basis?
  • Should Google be allowed to list everything it can find? Should Google be allowed to list or link to illegal websites or sites which encourage illegal activity?
  • Should Google be required to put age controls in place to limit children’s access to material we deem inappropriate for youngsters?
  • Should you be required to validate your identity before you use Google or should you be assured absolute anonymity under all circumstances without even the slightest hint of tracking?
  • Should Google’s data and logs be available to other companies, state bodies, governments, or individuals? Should individuals have a right of access to the records Google keeps on them?
  • How much use are others permitted to make of data about you, your website, or your business? What happens if the data they keep about you is incorrect?
  • Should there be limits on the ways in which Google is permitted to analyse its data? In a wider context; does any company have the right to analyse data about individuals in any manner it chooses or does society have the right to impose limits on what can be discovered? If society does have the right to limit data analysis, where do those limits lie?

I’m not going to provide answers to these questions or even suggest particular directions for resolving them, nor is this an attempt to provide an exhaustive list of decisions which must be made. However, these are decisions facing all of human society right now. They are decisions which all of us, by our actions, participate in the making of. We cannot avoid making these decisions.

Even not thinking about these issues is a decision — the decision to allow others to decide for you. These issues are underpinned by deep philosophical questions about the nature of society and the individual and the rights and responsibilities of both. They go to the heart of the philosophical foundations underpinning the legislative framework of any nation.

As such, we will — through action or inaction, thought or ignorance — debate these issues over the next twenty to fifty years. The question each of us needs to ask ourselves is — do we want to be part of that debate or are we happy for others to decide the fate of ourselves, our children, our country and our global society for us?

When Facebook denies advertising opportunities because they disagree with someone’s political position it affects us all — and it matters.

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