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Author: Pierluigi Perri


With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

In a sentence, Anupam Chander’s The Electronic Silk Road contains the good, the bad and the ugly of the modern interconnected and globalized world.

How many times do we use terms like “network” and “global”? In Professor Chander’s book you may find not only the meanings, but also the possible legal, economical and ethical implications that these terms may include today.

It’s well known that we are facing a revolution, despite of recent Bill Gates’ words that “The internet is not going to save the world”. I partly agree with Mr. Gates. Probably the internet will not save the world, but for sure it has already changed the world as we know it, making possible the opportunities that are well described in The Electronic Silk Road.

However, I would like to use my spot in this Symposium not to write about the wonders of the Trade 2.0, but to share some concerns that , as a privacy scholar, I have.

The problem is well known and is connected to the risk of the big data companies, that base their business model on consumer-profiling for selling advertisement or additional services to the companies.

“[T]he more the network provider knows about you, the more it can earn” writes Chander, and as noted by V. Mayer-Schönberger and K. Cukier in their recent book Big Data, the risks that could be related with the “dark side” of the big data are not just about the privacy of individuals, but also about the processing of those data, with the “possibility of using big data predictions about people to judge and punish them even before they’ve acted.”.

This is, probably, the good and the bad of big data companies as modern caravans of the electronic silk road: they bring a lot of information, and the information can be used, or better processed, for so many different purposes that we can’t imagine what will happen tomorrow, and not only the risk of a global surveillance is around the corner (on this topic I suggest to read the great post by D. K. Citron and D. Gray Addressing the Harm of Total Surveillance: A Reply to Professor Neil Richards), but also the risk of a dictatorship of data.

This possible circumstance, as Professor Solove write in the book Nothing To Hide “[…] not only frustate the individual by creating a sense of helpness and powerlessness, they also affect social structure by altering the kind of relationships people have with the institutions that make important decisions about their lives.”

Thus, I guess that the privacy and data protection ground could be the real challenge for the electronic silk road.

Professor Chander’s book is full of examples about the misuse of data (see the Paragraph Yahoo! in China), the problem of protection of sensitive data shared across the world (see the Paragraph Boston Brahmins and Bangalore Doctors), the problem about users’ privacy posed by social networks (see Chapter 5 Facebookistan).

But Professor Chander was able also to see the possible benefits of big data analysis (see the Paragraph Predictions and Predilections), for example in healthcare, thus is important to find a way to regulate the unstoppable flowing of data across the world.

In a so complex debate about a right that is subject to different senses and definitions across the world (what is “privacy” or “personal data” is different between USA, Canada, Europe and China for example), I find very interesting the recipe suggested by Anupam Chander.

First of all, we have to embrace some ground principles that are good both for providers and for law and policy makers: 1) do no evil; 2) technology is neutral; 3) the cyberspace need a dematerialized architecture.

Using these principles, it will be easy to follow Professor Chander’s fundamental rule: “harmonization where possible, glocalization where necessary”.

A practical implementation of this rule, as described in Chapter 8, will satisfy the different view of data privacy in a highly liberal regimes and in a highly repressive regime, pushing the glocalization (global services adapt to local rules) against the deregulation in the highly liberal regimes and the “do no evil” principle against the oppression in the highly repressive regime.

This seems reasonable to me, and at the end of my “journey” in Professor Chander’s book, I want to thank him for giving us some fascinating, but above all usable, theories for the forthcoming international cyberlaw.