Fighting for public data

October 2017

People talk about privacy like something we’ve lost. But in reality, privacy never really existed.

Well before the birth of the internet, people could look you up in the yellow pages. They could take pictures of your home. They could sneak into your backyard while you were at work and stalk your kids on their way to school.

Now they can still do that. And they can also mess with you online. But now at least we have a trace of what people have done with you (and where they were when they did).

So if anything, privacy has probably improved, not degraded over the past few decades.

Now, at a time where EU is fighting the GAFAs on a privacy and tax evasion ground, I think we should stop looking at this from a win-lose perspective, and search for a win-win situation. And here is one.

Instead of focusing on private data protection, how about focusing on gaining ground on public data? GAFAs own massive amounts of data that could be incredibly useful for our policies in many fields: education, transport, energy, health. A transportation example: a V0 would be to use the (aggregated) user transportation habits to revamp our (static) bus maps. A V1 could be to use that data to dynamically adjust buses routes and subway schedules. And so on.

The key here is that public transport companies cannot do that because to improve their service and gain users, they not only need data about their users, but they also need data about their non-users, i.e. people who decide not to take public transport. And only the GAFAs own that data.

So instead of bashing the GAFAs on privacy and tax grounds, what are we waiting for to tell them: “Sure you can make business in our countries, but you’re gaining so much knowledge about our people (at the expense of our public infrastructure) that we want public aggregated data in exchange?”

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