January 12, 2014

Intrusions abound from government, business

Economists hold dear a few tenets including the following: Those affected the most have the best incentive to make important decisions on their own behalf, markets work well unless they are plagued by one of myriad market failures, well-defined property rights are important and more and better information invariably improves decision-making.

To economists, power ought to be diffused, while, to political scientists, politics is the art of the use of power.

Our recent national debate about freedom of information challenges all these tenets.

The Internet provides us with more information, for free, than we could have ever imagined. Of course, we get what we pay for. While we have access to amazing and bewildering amounts of data and information, the Internet also has access to data about us. Even unsophisticated observers could tell an interesting story if only they could view the surfing habits, the emails, the financial interactions, the purchases and the uploads and downloads over just a week.

Those who are watching us are hardly casual observers, though.

Companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo employ some of the most sophisticated data miners in the world to sift through our data and use it to direct ads, services and products to us. They sell us, and they make tens of billions of dollars by doing so. If I state in an email I am going to Savannah for a vacation, the next thing I find above my emails or alongside web pages are car rental prices in Georgia.

We tolerate this in return for free email, calendars, cloud storage and myriad other perks. This compact between Google and us requires an amount of trust on our part that few contemplate.

I am hardly a conspiracy theorist, but I harken back to the story of HAL, the computer that took over a manned spacecraft in 2001, A Space Odyssey. That movie captured our fear that IBM (just one letter up in the alphabet for each character in HAL) would someday monopolize information and control humans.

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