Data democracy is a terrible idea, so why is TRAI for it?
Even in mature democracies, only the legislature is democratic. The executive and judiciary aren't.
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In the real world, the jury is still out on whether universal suffrage is a good idea, or if it is something that collectively dumbs down societies. As a concept, it is still relatively new, becoming a norm only in the 20th century and that too not everywhere.
And so far as the election of Donald Trump shows, the record of masses electing their leaders has been mixed. But in the virtual world, a consensus seems to have been formed: giving choice to people is, most of the time, not a great idea.
In a world that is driven by the clicks people make, everything is going awry. The number of clicks, which in turn help tune the algorithms that rule our lives, aren't creating a world that is better.
We see this on social media. We see it on search engines. We see it on almost every website which is out there, including on this website. We know what people read on DailyO, we know what sort of comments they upvote. It is not always glorious.
In this virtual world, arguing for data democracy is not a bright idea. Yet, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India - the regulator that keeps a watch on the telecom sector in India - is rooting for the same.
It wants to give Indian web users and people who use smartphones the ability to choose how their data is going to be used. As a concept it sounds great - all about choices and don’t we all love choice - but look at the nuances, and you start realising why a government regulator wants people to own their data and how things can go wrong a few years down the line.
To understand the intent of the government, which in this case seems to be collecting more and more data by forcing technology companies to unlock their virtual vaults, you need to hear what TRAI chairman RS Sharma recently said about Apple.
TRAI claims that for over a year now, it is fighting with Apple to bring the DND (Do Not Disturb) app on iPhones. This app is supposed to help Indian phone users fight spam calls and messages.
In reality, it is a rubbish app. It is useless - the spam messages and calls never stop - and unnecessary. On Android, where the app is available, it has a rating of 1.9 stars, which is pathetic by every measure. The app is not available on iPhones because it requires access to user data that Apple doesn't allow. TRAI doesn't like it.
Unlike Android phones, where user data is more easily accessible to apps, on the iPhone Apple tightly controls the private data that other apps can get. The company does this for several reasons, one of which is privacy and security.
Overall, the iPhone is arguably the most secure and private smartphone regular users can buy, all because Apple tightly controls how private data of an iPhone user can be accessed.
Overall, the iPhone is arguably the most secure and private smartphone regular users can buy.
For over a year now, TRAI is asking for access to users’ private data on iPhones for its DND App. But Apple has reportedly refused.
Sharma is now playing the "data democracy" card. "Let us not confuse the issue (DND issue) with privacy... the issue here is about the user's ownership of his (or) her own data and their ability to share that data consciously with the regulator and third party," he recently told PTI.
Apple so far has been unmoved, largely - but not wholly - because it believes that giving private data access to apps, however holy the app, will be akin to opening a chink in iPhone security.
Incidentally, this is not the first time such an argument has been heard from Indian government officials. Recently, in the Supreme Court during the debate on whether Indians have the fundamental right to privacy or not, the lawyers representing Indian government repeatedly argued that if users willing want to surrender their privacy they should be allowed to do that.
And then there is the recent TRAI consultation paper on data ownership. The same argument, which is also espoused by all those who love all things Aadhaar, is repeated in the paper.
TRAI notes: "In the context of data protection, it is also important to establish the ownership of the data. For instance, if the data is recognised as belonging to the user to whom it pertains, then this data becomes available for use by them to better their own lives."
In simple words, the argument that has come from the Indian government of late is that people should be given a choice to share their data with government bodies or private organisations. If people want to throw their privacy under the bus to get free pizza, they should be allowed to make that choice. We live in a democracy after all.
In a way this is a debate that will unfold gradually in other parts of the world too, particularly in the Silicon Valley where so far meritocracy - and it has its own problems - has been the guiding hand and not democracy.
But so far we have also seen that in the world of technology, meritocracy works better than democracy as far as the larger picture is concerned. Some of the security protocols, for example PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), are fantastic because they are not the result of a "democratic process". Repeatedly, we have seen that web users or smartphone users indeed do not know what is best for them.
Steve Jobs - of the same Apple that is in tussle with TRAI - was fond of saying that often users don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Maybe this is because not enough people are well-versed with the basics of the virtual world. Or maybe the reasons are more political and philosophical.
But irrespective of the reasons it makes sense not to force something like "data democracy" on people who may not understand what is data and how it would be used.
It won't be unique to keep something like data security and privacy away from "democracy". Even in mature democracies, only the legislature is democratic. The executive and judiciary aren't.
Data transparency, yes. Regulation, yes. But not data democracy. It sounds very elitist. So does the concept of net neutrality.
But just like breaking net neutrality is going to break the world of the web the way we know it, "data democracy" may end up ruining the exact thing it hopes to safeguard.