New Gatekeepers: Microsoft buys Github

We all know by now, or should, about who owns our data – and we like to think it’s our own, where we can download and view it from social networks. This, too, is what programmers do with their code these days- which caused a bit of an uproar when Microsoft acquired Github.

It wasn’t about who owned the code – they still owned their code. It was about who the gatekeeper was, and despite Microsoft’s efforts in open source, there’s a lack of trust that they earned when it equated Linux and other open source projects as an enemy.

The articles we read on these things are framed to make it about ownership, because if you originally uploaded anything anywhere on any website and they said you retained ownership, you did. They can’t change that without breaking copyright law. So, in the grand scheme of things, ownership is not the issue and never will be. However, the issue of how that data is used by the provider is something hidden in legalese that most people don’t bother reading until the owner of the site changes.

It’s a pattern that at least some of us have seen over the decades. In the end, though, nothing has really changed – if you are ok with sharing anything on some website that doesn’t belong to you, you have to expect that either the site may one day fail or that it will be bought by another company – after all, the latter is what so many startups want, and the former is what they fear. To think otherwise takes a peculiar naivete, even from some people who are knowledgeable in information technology and programming. To think otherwise is decidedly wrong.

So, sure, you can download your information from Google and Facebook now – the Cambridge Analytica affair made that more visible – but the valuable data isn’t shown, where the interactions and derived data are still not what you get. For example, if you and some friends interact regularly, all of you would only have access to your side of the conversation because, legally, that’s all you own.

The conversation itself, though, is where the actual value is. What you interact with means little, what your interactions are interpreted as is important because that’s how they ‘tailor your experience’. Maybe they get it right, maybe it fits well, but how can they do that? Isn’t it more likely that in the digital world you’re traveling around in ill-fitting clothing and being judged by it for job interviews?

The ownership of the data isn’t as important as the trust in the organization that allows you access. Some people trust Facebook blindly – less so now, I wager. Some people trust Google implicitly, sometimes not even recognizing that their email is handled by Google. Some people don’t realize that Facebook owns WhatsApp, and that a founder of WhatsApp quit with rumors of leaving about degrading the encryption of WhatsApp that people all over the world assume allows them some privacy.

Some people trust Microsoft implicitly, despite their own issues over the decades. Some people trusted Github implicitly. And so it goes with every website that people use to interact or solely store data. In the information age, where we generate so much information and store it, it isn’t about ownership. It’s about who controls the flow of information.

It’s about the Gatekeepers. It used to be that traditional media was how this was done – and social media came along which gave people a sense of empowerment by allowing them to connect to like minds. And the Internet allowed companies to start collecting data, analyzing it and using it in new ways. It’s not all bad, I’m certain, but I’m certain it’s not all good. None of them really want to hurt you, but none of them care enough about you, an individual in a sea of billions, to care to hurt you.

Take a moment and think about who, if they fail, will no longer be able to give you access to data. I know one family member who stores his treasured photographs on Facebook – but what if he loses access to Facebook for some odd reason? What if you loose access to all that data in the cloud? I’m not saying that people shouldn’t do it.

What I am saying is that if you really want control over your information, if you really want to be able to access regardless of companies folding or buying each other out, there’s only one way to do it.

Keep it yourself.

Taran Rampersad

Taran Rampersad has over three decades of experience working with technology, the majority of which was as a software engineer.

He is a published author on virtual worlds and was part of the team of writers at that won the Utne Award.

He is an outspoken advocate of simplifying processes and bending technology’s use to society’s needs.

His volunteer work related to technology and disasters has been mentioned by the media (BBC), and is one of the plank-owners of combining culture with ICT in the Caribbean (ICT) through CARDICIS and has volunteered time towards those ends.

As an amateur photographer, he has been published in educational books, magazines, websites and NASA’s ‘Sensing The Planet’.

These days, he’s focusing more on his writing and technology experiments. Feel free to contact him through Facebook Messenger.