One issue that particularly struck me while I was at the panel was the issue of where the money comes from. Although we were introduced to a wide variety of technology that doesn’t collect our data for the selling, all of those projects relied on either government funding, or volunteers.
In the case of the government-funded projects, the government only agreed to fund these projects if said project promised to gear them towards other countries – in the interest of “spreading democracy abroad.” If these people appear to be too closely targeting the US population, or too many US citizens begin adopting these privacy-saving programs, the government could very well pull their funding. It really seems like that will become inevitable – after all, the government has a vested interest in easily being able to track citizen’s online activities. Even if they never pull funding, they will almost certainly work out deals in which they will have access to our data, even if it isn’t being sold to third parties.
In the case of the projects that relied on a strong volunteer base – clearly that works well when the market is: A. quite small, and B. mostly made up of people who are very dedicated to the cause. Could we get enough volunteers, or enough charitable donations, to be able to take over for Google, Facebook, YouTube, etc, in terms of the functions they are performing for our society? And even if that could happen, would that be ethical? In our reading, we learned about how the Internet has forced many people (particularly creative types, such as writers) to do their work for free, or pro bono, because so many people online are willing to perform those same duties for free out of love for the subject. Could the same thing happen for computer programmers? Right now many programmers who work for Google get paid over 100k, hearty benefits, and free transport to and from the Googleplex (yes, that is seriously what their headquarters is called). I don’t think it would be ethical (or beneficial to our society – I don’t see volunteers being as reliably meticulous about checking for bugs as paid Google employees, and Google being down for a few hours can cost millions, or even billions of dollars) to ask these people to give up their salary or benefits.
So we’re left with a problem – our decreasing privacy, and ever-increasing surveillance – with no solution. Clearly we need to come up with a lucrative, for-profit business model so that companies like Google and Facebook can continue to exist and provide their services to us. But what model could rival the relative easy, and incredibly lucrative, current model of selling user data? I’m definitely not sure – and it didn’t seem like the panel was either.