Reflections on "Future of the open web: challenges and opportunities"

Last night I attended a panel discussion Future of the open web: challenges and opportunities. There were a number of perspectives shared. My oversimplification of what I heard was "government and big business is bad, somehow we need to regulate to protect freedom".

Much of the discussion was what one might expect from such a group. There was talk about moving away from closed software to open source software, moving from closed services to open source services, the need to encrypt data to be safe, and the hot button of the season: government surveillance.

I like to consider these types of panels as an opportunity for a thought experiment. The majority of us do not grapple with issues about the implication of open data and corporate use of data as part of our daily lives. It was wonderful to listen to the panelists speak from their experience working with these difficult topics.

As I began to think more about what was being discussed, I asked myself if we were talking about a problem that I actually face. I give my data to Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and a million other corporations without knowing it. I rarely think about the fact that my search results may be filtered based on my online behaviour, or that corporations are collecting a profile about me based on the music and books I buy. When these thoughts do cross my mind I dismiss them with the statement "I have nothing to hide".

On one level I question if I am living a life of ignorance. Should I worry about how super mega country sized corporations are using and tracking my data? On another level I wonder if this is part of the new human experience. That this is what it means to be a connected human in the 21st century. Interestingly one participant compared the current state of affairs on the web with feudalism. Many peasants working for a lord, hoping that the lord will treat them properly when the invading forces come. I propose that the answer today is the same as the answer then, only if it serves the best interests of the lord.

The worrying part of the entire discussion was the desire to see regulation as the answer to the problem of how data is used. I am not a libertarian by any stretch of the imagination. I believe that regulation is completely justified to solve societal problems. I want regulators inspecting restaurants and drug manufacturing plants, to ensure that corporations are not cutting corners in ways that may contribute to illness and death. I don't know that I want regulators telling those same restaurants how much sodium they can inject into my breakfast sandwich, or what types of fat can be used to fry my french fries. I do want to be informed about what I am eating, but I want the freedom to choose food that will shorten my life.

I want the opportunity to understand how corporations are proposing to use my data. I want to trust that "Terms & Conditions" are enforced, and I want an easy avenue for complaint when I believe that a corporation has breached our contract. I don't want corporations to be told how they can use my data, unless the one doing the telling is me.

I use tools that improve my life and shape my experience of communicating over the web, and I am reasonably comfortable that the cost well justifies the benefit. Perhaps, however, like a heart attack brought on by high blood pressure and congested arteries, you only begin to care once tragedy hits.