The activist and internet entrepreneur Maciej Ceglowski once described big data as “a bunch of radioactive, toxic sludge that we don’t know how to handle.” Maybe we should think about Google and Facebook as the new polluters. Their imperative is to grow! They create jobs! They pay taxes, sort of! In the meantime, they’re dumping trillions of units of toxic brain poison into our public-thinking reservoir. Then they mop it up with Wikipedia or send out a message that reads, “We take your privacy seriously.”
Given that the federal government is currently one angry man with nuclear weapons and a Twitter account, and that it’s futile to expect reform or self-regulation from internet giants, I’d like to propose something that will seem impossible but I would argue isn’t: Let’s make a digital Environmental Protection Agency. Call it the Digital Protection Agency. Its job would be to clean up toxic data spills, educate the public, and calibrate and levy fines.
Whether it’s through laws or a separate agency, the U.S. needs a new approach to better supervise and safeguard the enormous amount of personal user data in the hands of today’s companies. At the moment, I don’t have much hope in law-based protection, given that Congress has largely failed to punish Equifax for their compromising of more than 140 million Americans’ personal data. However, an independent, empowered, and funded agency could be a promising first step, even if it takes years to realize its potential.