The Values Crisis

Let’s talk about values.

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Hard pass.

We sometimes talk about “use cases” for data, which is a shorthand for “how do you intend to make this particular information set perform a new category of work or combine with other information sets to perform a new category of work.”  It’s important, as we discuss in Data Leverage, to understand how you deploy your intrinsic and extrinsic datasets, and part of that understanding is certainly having a clear idea of what the data does.  But identifying use cases is only a preliminary step.  It’s the next step in the DataSmart Method – valuation – that really places data and use cases in context.  It’s only possible to take intelligent, informed action once you have assigned data value.  In brief: value sets the parameters for action.

That principle applies just about everywhere.  We use values to define goals, both economically and philosophically, and we find value criteria to examine whether we are meeting those goals.  For instance, if you value a dataset in our fourth “bucket” of $1million, your value criterion might be whether revenues from licensing the dataset exceed that number.  Or, less commercially, if your value is customer loyalty, your value criteria might be high ratings, repeat visits, and word of mouth advertising.  Once values set the goal, value criteria are the metric for determining success.

Not everyone agrees on valuations or values, of course.  And even if you value something the same way as another person, or if you both share similar values (which are not the same thing), you can have very different value criteria.  That’s why two businesses with similar values and comparable datasets can deploy them in an entirely different way and go in two entirely different directions.  Consider that, in 1995, Amazon and Barnes & Noble were both online booksellers (though B&N had far more assets and revenue from its brick and mortar).  They deployed datasets differently based on different values: Amazon expanded into general ecommerce and, more importantly, the AWS Platform-as-a-Service.  B&N stuck with books, albeit while dramatically expanded its ecommerce reach.  The results?

That little blue line at the bottom is Barnes & Noble

The point is that differing values and value criteria lead to surprisingly different outcomes.  It’s a matter of emphasis, and often depends on arbitrary line-drawing, which is why those line-drawing exercises are so important.  Which brings us to Internet regulations around the world.

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“Yeah!  Wait….what?”

We sometimes talk about how there are three Internet models: the American, the European, and the Chinese.  Roughly speaking, the American model is unregulated, open to business, and less protective of individual privacy rights.  The Chinese model is business-friendly but tightly controlled by the government and, uh, not so friendly to human rights.  The European model is meant to straddle the space between the U.S. and China, with open markets, free discourse, and robust protections for personal privacy and rights.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be, anyway, and embracing that purpose is a direct aim of the GDPR.

The reason these models differ is that they stem from different values or (when their respective homes share values) value criteria.  The American model derives from the unrestrained approach to commercial enterprise that characterizes much of the US economy.  The Chinese model is a natural extension of the dominant mode of political thought of Premier Xi Jinping, which is called (you guessed it), Xi Jinping Thought (basically: economic growth coupled with complete socio-political control by the Communist Party).  Europe’s values are set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right to privacy and control of one’s personal data.  Yes, I realize this is all pretty dense, but I’m getting somewhere.

Oh, am I boring you, skip?

This all starts to break down when actions don’t match values, when we depart from the value criteria we set to determine success.  A free, open, functioning Internet is an essential component of the American and European models, but neither are holding up their end of the bargain by sticking to their values.

The US has consistently failed to provide a meaningful regulatory answer to the excesses of the Information Industrial Complex, which consumes personal data and commoditizes human experience.  On the other hand, the American model strongly promotes freedom of speech, diverse expression and association, innovation, growth, and the development of new technology.  The European model places the rights of personal dignity and privacy front and center, empowering human beings to reclaim control of their digital personae and to exist in a space where their personal lives and experiences are not simply the raw material for nudging. And yet, with the Copyright Directive, the EU seems poised to throttle free speech in Europe, curtailing the rights of expression and association that are, in fact, cornerstones of personal dignity and identity to begin with.
No, Doctor, it isn’t.

The solution, as we see it, lies somewhere in between the American and European models.  (In the Azores, maybe?). Individuals need control over their data, an enforceable right to privacy and access, and the ability to redress grievances by regulators that are not captured by the industries they oversee.  Businesses must have the freedom to grow, innovate, promote new ideas, hire new workers, drive revenue, and create new opportunities.  And freedom of expression, association, and creativity lie at the very heart of the Internet as a collective work of humanity.  The Internet is, in some respects, the largest project of our species, an interconnected effort with trillions of touchpoints.  Unlawful or inciting expression needs to be cabined, of course, but only insofar as doing so preserves the rights of speech and creativity that impel the project forward.

For us, it comes back to the three principles we continue to identify as the most important for a free, fair, open Internet of ideas and commerce: transparency, security, consistency.  They are not only value criteria, they are values themselves, simultaneously the means and the ends.  Even, or especially, if Congress or the European Parliament fail to remember them, it’s up to the rest of us to keep them in mind.  A use case without a value is simply a waste of time, but an entire model for the Internet without values is a calamity.

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