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Internet Governance 24 October 2013

Big Data: Big Questions

Whatever session you attend at IGF this year, chances are you’ll hear all about “Big Data.” What it means, depends on which room you’re in at the time and who’s doing the talking. From themes on content creation to disaster relief to privacy, security and everywhere in between, the buzzword “Big Data” was to 2013 what “Cloud Computing” was to IGF a couple years back. Big Data is the new black but when data is involved things are never really black and white. It was raised as a key issue at the Opening Session and the discussions of IGF 2013 provide a good opportunity to go deeper.

Big Business? Big Brother? Big Opportunities? What will big data mean for us all? These were the questions posed on Day Two of the Internet Governance Forum 2013 by Workshop 203- Big Data: Promoting development and safeguarding privacy as it took a look behind the buzz at the dimensions of big data.

There are incredible benefits that can be leveraged from aggregate and anonymised data. From the subtleties of consumer personalisation to finding endemic and epidemic trends in healthcare or disaster prevention, the availability of data can be a powerful tool. The adage (or cliche) Knowledge is Power still pertains and the panel raised some powerful possibilities of how Big Data could be applied to provide very real benefits to people’s lives.

As with all discussions on the subject of Power however, data collection and its use has huge implications as Lynn St Amour candidly raised in her IGF opening address that confronted the aftermath of the revelations of how data is being used by governments.WS 203 asked where is the line between personalisation and discrimination. Profiling was an issue of major concern. Through the use of social media and the sharing of more and more personal information in conscious and unwitting ways online, there is an indelible fingerprint that codes and decodes aspects of the self. Self revelation was an issue of key debate and its link to surveillance as a process that can have dangerous effects that can erode fundamental human rights based on prejudices surrounding ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age and affiliationsThere was a question as to assumptions of privacy and whether the virtual world has disrupted privacy or whether this was an imagined privacy to begin with and what really changed was the latency of the data that could now be retained. Other points of view on privacy argued that the Internet had indeed fundamentally changed how privacy can be regarded and practiced and whether there were spaces for choice or a constant panopticon.

A criticism was pitched against vague legal terms that did little to empower users with a choice and there was a call for more informed consumers. How this could be achieved in any concrete way needs further dialogue. As it is clear that transparency of uses and ethical considerations surrounding not only collection but current and future use also need to be addressed. Who will address this? This is an issue that affects everyone tweeting, reading or breathing right now in very real ways.

The discussions at IGF are pointing to exciting possibilities for applications of Big Data. How this can be forged in positive ways demands dialogue and action which can only be successful within frameworks of collaboration that actually work and that meet at the intersections of protecting human rights and exploring enhanced opportunites. It is clear that a consciousness is warranted on what Big Data implies. As IGF 2013 with its Big Talk progresses, it will be interesting to see what implications emerge and what Actions result.


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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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