A new view of digital rights: Make them part of digital infrastructure

A new view of digital rights: Make them part of digital infrastructure
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The proposed bipartisan infrastructure bill is still far from a done deal, but after the political wrangling over what is and isn’t “infrastructure,” at least one area of firm bipartisan agreement has emerged: broadband digital access is infrastructure, and if the U.S. lags behind, our economy will not remain competitive.

The proposed bill includes $65 billion to upgrade broadband nationally, though experts say that’s only a down payment on the goal of universal fast internet access. The broad agreement on broadband for all is a positive, overdue development.

But by itself, without better digital norms and governance, universal broadband access in the U.S. won’t do much to secure Americans’ digital rights, equitably distributed economic growth, or stronger competitiveness. Achieving those things requires another kind of digital “infrastructure” — data sharing systems that bake in users’ rights to privacy and control of their data.

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Many other countries are already investing in them. Unless the U.S. does too, it will fall behind in the innovation economy.

Lina KhanLina KhanOvernight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens FTC warns health apps to notify consumers impacted by data breaches Overnight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability MORE, who came to prominence as a champion of digital rights, recently started her tenure as head of the Federal Trade Commission, which investigates antitrust violations, deceptive trade practices, and data privacy issues in the tech sector. Shortly after, the FTC’s landmark antitrust suit against Facebook was thrown out by a federal judge, sending Facebook’s market capitalization soaring passed $1 trillion. The suit could be refiled, but the ruling underscores the point that Big Tech has become so dominant, it has plenty of power and money with which to fight off regulation.

It’s not just Facebook, or even the “Big Five” (Google, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, aka GAAFA). Most companies you interact with online collect and share your personal details almost entirely without your knowledge. The shady industry of data brokers aggregates myriad data points collected about you — not only from your browsing history, but also from your smart fridge, your farm equipment, and thousands of other devices — and sells those insights to governments and companies all over the world.

Good luck regulating that.

Beyond regulation, we need a different kind of digital infrastructure. If we want to unlock the opportunity for truly equitable economic growth, we need to build a digital ecosystem that enables all people to access this valuable new asset class asset and that respects their digital rights. If we want those rights to be enforceable and compatible with democratic values and fair, free markets, we’re going to have to define them clearly, and embed them directly into digital systems.

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Other countries are far ahead of the U.S. in this respect. For example, since 2001 Estonia’s government database system X-Road has put citizens’ documents and data online, which users can retrieve for hyper-efficient, real-time government services. The information is stored using secure, end-to-end encrypted pathways, which ensures it is decentralized, lives locally and is controlled by the users, who decide what parts of their data others can and can’t see. It works so well and is so trusted that private companies, neighboring Finland and countries as far away as Mauritius and Zambia are replicating it. The U.S. is not one of them.

In 2017, as a visiting fellow at Stanford, Estonia’s former president expressed his shock at how anachronistic the U.S. remains in terms of basic transactions, which in Estonia and other countries have been conducted smoothly online for many years: “It’s like the nineteen-fifties — I had to provide an electrical bill to prove I live here!” he told The New Yorker. “You can get an iPhone X, but, if you have to register your car, forget it.

In fact, there are many such examples of countries that are lightyears ahead of the U.S. in building user control and trust into their systems.

India’s experimental data sharing system exchanges data not only across all government agencies, but also across regulated private sectors like healthcare, banking and education. It has instituted a new regulatory license for data fiduciaries known as “account aggregators,” whose job it is to manage people’s data flows in accordance with their wishes, where they can exercise control over their digital footprint, and easily change or revoke their consent to share their data at any time.

This new function holds breakthrough benefits for Indians from all walks of life.  For example, it helps them get better treatment by letting them show confidential medical history to trusted care providers in real time. It enables them to qualify and secure better terms for loans because they can securely access and share their financial information. And it helps them land jobs by letting them show verifiable education credentials to prospective employers.

India’s system doesn’t just block suspect use of people’s personal information; it opens up economic opportunity — so people can reap the benefits of the data they generate. For example, it levels the playing field for start-up companies, so they can access data previously monopolized and monetized by the big players alone.

The EU is taking a close look at India's approach as a meaningful framework for defending Europeans' digital rights (codified in the EU's General Data Protection Regulation).

But for Americans who have become used to all kinds of data breaches and inscrutable terms and conditions that leave them virtually no practical control over their data, this all sounds radical. A trustworthy fiduciary structure dedicated to giving users control of their data and letting them enjoy its benefits — as opposed to companies wresting control from them and exploiting it for their own profit — is hard for us to imagine. That should change. 

If the EU is taking inspiration from India's approach, why can't the U.S.? Isn’t the whole point of infrastructure spending to expand and extend opportunity to all?

Achieving that in the U.S. depends on building a trustworthy, non-exploitative digital environment that respects users’ rights and needs.

Digital infrastructure doesn’t have to be run by the public sector to serve the public good, but so far, Big Tech hasn’t shown an inclination to deliver services that do. On the contrary, it has spawned a frightening, unaccountable system that extracts and exploits data without meaningful consent, and leaves people unable to control or benefit from it.

So as long as the U.S. government is agreeing to spend many billions on improving and expanding broadband infrastructure, let’s also agree that at the same time, we should also invest in approaches to digital governance that expand user rights and create a more equitable data economy. Building trust and rights, not just cables and servers, is critical infrastructure for U.S. competitiveness and democracy.

Priya Vora is the co-founder of Future State and the Africa Data Leadership Initiative, programs affiliated with the United Nations. Previously she launched the Financial Services for the Poor program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.