Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
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Algorithms and Intellectual Autonomy

-- By HyunKyungLee - 21 Mar 2017

1. Introduction

When we use Google or Facebook, we sometimes are impressed by how personalized the information provided by those services are. However, would it be fine to simply enjoy the personalized services that provide the exact information that users are looking for without serious contemplation on the cost that we might be paying in return for such services? As of February 2017, Google accounts for 80 percent or more of the search market and Facebook is taking up 40 percent or more of the SNS market. Given that these services have enormous influence on people’s lives and that people are highly relying on these services, it is critical to carefully understand the method and the potential cost of the personalized service.

2. Methodology, cost and intellectual autonomy

A. Methodology

How these giant services are providing users with customized information is as follows. First, the services collect data on users’ behavior on internet And based on the collected historical data on users’ behavior, the services infer users’ topics of attention and provide users with the information that users would seek by using pattern-matching algorithms. For example, Facebook would record user A’s behavior pattern on its platform, gathering data onread, reply, like, share of the postings. Then, Facebook matches user A with another user B who demonstrates similar behavior patterns, exposes user A to the postings to which user B responded to and again records user A’s response pattern to the postings. Such process repeats infinitely.

B. The cost

First of all, the giant services record every movement of users on internet. The user gives the entire information about herself, including information unrecognized to the user herself, to giant services as payment for using the services. Ironically, the user cannot exercise any right on the accumulated data although the data is about the user herself and has no idea about the purpose the data used for. Second, a user can become victim to her own biases. As the algorithms adopted by giant services operate in the manner to intensify the user’s attention pattern by giving information that she prefers, users might simply regard receiving of the information she wants as benefit. Actually, however, that is rather cost for the services.

C. Intellectual autonomy

Intellectual autonomy can be defined as thinking for oneself independently from others’ direction and control. And staying anonymous during the thinking process is the essential element in protecting substantial intellectual autonomy. It is impossible for individuals to fully enjoy intellectual autonomy in the environment where every behavior of the individual, such as reading and collecting information and expressing her own thoughts is traced. Giant services’ operating mechanism which records every behavior of users put the users’ intellectual autonomy in danger. When thinking process regarded as making rational decisions based on information through reasoning, biased information would lead to damage to intellectual economy. Giant services’ operating mechanism also put the users’ intellectual autonomy in danger as it make users more biased Furthermore, what makes the matter even worse is that people in societies dominated by such services are indifferent to the risks of such services and often misunderstand that their thoughts and decisions are based on their autonomous thinking.

3. Response plan

A. Antitrust regulations?

We cannot simply conclude that we should not use such giant services. First started using giant services such as Google or Facebook for various reasons, people are already habituated to such services and feel that they cannot live without them. In other words, the giant services’ monopoly will not be resolved through users’ voluntary exits. With market control by the above services as premise, we can consider antitrust regulations that requires special obligation to prevent these companies from harming consumers by leveraging their positions. The European Union’s competition commissioner filed antitrust charges on Google, Google received antitrust investigation in US and Facebook is under antitrust investigation in Germany.

B. Algorithmic transparency

Angela Merkel demanded algorithmic transparency to giant service providers last fall, alleging that they are creating bubbles of self-reinforcing views. Aside from her demand, there has been continuous demand for algorithmic transparency for a long time. However, the service providers have avoided disclosure of algorithm, arguing that the algorithms are their most invaluable trade secrets and are difficult to technically explain. It is true that algorithms are the core assets of the service providers. However, although the very initial and simple algorithm might have been created solely based on their ideas, the current algorithms are the results of continuous use of users’ information and correction of defects of past algorithms. In this regard, can we view the algorithms of the giant service providers purely as the fruits of their efforts? Moreover, considering that many experts are striving to improve the rights of consumers, while it might be difficult for individual consumers to understand what input generates what output in what process at a glance, it would be possible to understand those algorithms through experts’ interpretation and education. Algorithmic transparency is essential for intellectual autonomy, considering the market monopoly by giant service providers and the environment where it is hard to avoid using such services.

C. Using the Net incognito

If we can neither leave the giant services nor preclude the services from recording our behavior, we should be able to use those services anonymously. Users can use the net incognito by using TOR, the “onion routing” system which enables anonymous communication by keeping user’s location and usage from being monitored. TOR can ensure the user’s anonymous use of the services when combined with prudently secured operating system.

D. Education

The most important is education of people. Users need to understand the trends and defects of the information they find on the Internet. Moreover, users should understand and stay vigilant against the fact that they do not think independently. Rather, they tend to blindly follow what others think. While it might not be possible for users to completely leave such algorithmic services, they should at least make efforts to pursue compromised intellectual autonomy based on the understanding of the risks of such services.

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r3 - 05 May 2017 - 19:24:10 - HyunKyungLee
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