Our life is becoming more digital every day. In the physical world, governments still have an important role to own or regulate infrastructure. However, the digital infrastructure is predominantly owned and managed by private companies. They take care of your data storage, communications, payments, and even freedom of speech. It is not a problem as such, but what are your rights using these necessary services, and what means do you have to protect your digital properties? Can governments and authorities protect you in the digital space?
Three pillars of our digital life
Let’s take a look at three different areas that are pretty fundamental in our daily life:
1. Payments. A few companies handle a significant part of payments. Mastercard and Visa alone have quite a dominating role in the credit card business. They are American companies, and their role has raised questions in Russia and China. Nowadays, similar questions are being raised in Europe. These could turn into powerful weapons for the US government to sanction countries, companies, and individuals. However, a new fintech ecosystem is emerging, and, as I wrote earlier, its strategic role is still probably underestimated.
2. Data storage. Technology companies hold most of your data. In the past, you kept paper copies when companies sent you statements, or you had to keep documents and certificates. Today, you trust that your bank statements, health data, investments, most receipts, and many other documents are on some companies’ servers, and you have access to them if you need them. And they are in those countries and jurisdictions where service providers happen to offer the service.
3. Communications. Global technology giants offer WhatsApp, Zoom, Skype, and other communication tools. And it is not only one-to-one communication but also social media platforms. As we know, those services can also block you, especially if they don’t like your behavior. In many cases, they are expected to take active steps to monitor user behavior on their platforms. Nevertheless, the rights of individuals or other companies are very limited in situations where such platform operators decide to block users from these services.
There is also a debate whether digital giants, like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba, Tencent, and Microsoft, have become more powerful than governments. Especially with the increasing power of data and AI is making these more critical questions. Those companies have more data, and R&D resources than many national governments will ever be able to amass.
Emerging trends and technological breakthrough
We could easily say those companies and their CEOs control the world. However, the reality is not so black and white. We have also seen development in many other directions. People and governments are also waking up to the situation.
Let’s look at some other trends:
1. COVID-19 has shown that governments still play an essential role. Crucially, they can regulate things by closing businesses, restricting movement and travel, and their role in health care (including vaccine and drug development and distribution). The pandemic may have generated an extreme example, but it still reminds us how governments still have the last say. We also see this in the realm of data privacy regulation (e.g. GDPR and CCPA) and how Silicon Valley executives need to travel occasionally to Capitol Hill to explain issues their businesses generate.
2. In the past decade, we have seen trends in technologies moving towards a centralized model. Nevertheless, that trend has already turned, and we are witnessing new developments adopting decentralized and distributed solutions. We now have, for example, blockchain, cryptos, user-held data, and edge computing. They don’t dominate markets yet, and they have their issues, but they are rapidly developing areas getting considerable traction from users, developers and investors.
3. People are becoming more interested in protecting their digital rights. I recently wrote an article showing that people are interested in privacy and protecting their data. People also consider which data management tools to adopt and how they use them. This also means politicians are becoming more interested in these issues, and it offers opportunities to companies to offer new kinds of digital services to individuals.
4. Also, the employees of the digital giants become more skeptical about how their companies work. This has an impact on what kind of people and competence levels they can attract. At the same time, we see many others keen to develop new solutions relying on technologies such as blockchain and open source.
New decentralized world
We are still at an early stage with new regulations and decentralized solutions that empower individuals. Let’s think of a vision where individuals can collect and store all their data in the cloud or their own servers, choose which country to keep it depending on the legislation they prefer. It is possible to imagine a world where your own AI helps you with your data, your money is in your crypto-wallet, and communications tools are built on decentralized solutions and open source components. These are not yet mainstream solutions, but they are all available now, and they are developing fast.
For governments, the question is not only how to regulate businesses but also individuals. We see how various governments are worried about decentralized solutions and cryptos and want to allow only solutions they can control. Tools to manage the currency and collect taxes are fundamental for any government.
Digital technology has enabled the creation of a few globally dominant tech companies. At the same time, we know that technology development is fast. Microsoft’s monopoly in PC operating systems and antitrust debate to split it now seems like ancient history, although it was only 20 years ago. It’s important to take the regulation of digital companies seriously. Yet, we also witness development that can change things rapidly and empower individuals in the digital world. And it is suitable for most people, governments, and even businesses to get to a more decentralized digital world soon. It is better for the rights of people, but probably better for political systems, too, that people can feel they can control and protect their rights.