World

Computer scientist David Magerman wants to build a more ethical internet

David Magerman became rich working with Robert Mercer, the billionaire co-owner of Cambridge Analytica. Having seen the role online data mining had in helping Donald Trump become president, Magerman now wants to create a better, less profit-driven internet.

Magerman became wealthy working for billionaire Trump backer Robert Mercer

David Magerman is a computer scientist who worked with Robert Mercer, a major financial supporter of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. (Jason Burles/CBC)

Multi-millionaire computer scientist David Magerman believes he has met the enemy, and it is us.

Maybe not exactly the flesh-and-blood us, but certainly our cyberselves — the unwitting employees of Facebook and Twitter who absently click great gobs of our personal information into the maw of social media, allowing a handful of internet titans to put it to work and make more money than God.

For one thing, Magerman resents that people on his payroll spend some of their workday on social media doing things that benefit the bottom lines at Facebook and Twitter.

They're "moonlighting," he says, "and I'm paying them."

But most worrisome to him is that people don't seem to understand the value of the personal information they give up as they surf the web, and how it is being used to shape their world and bend their preferences —  including their political preferences.

"We're spending our productive time helping Facebook and Twitter be valuable," he says. And if we don't even realize that's what we're doing, how can we choose whether we want to do it?

Rather than just patch the holes in the internet with quickly obsolescent security products, Magerman imagines a whole new layer to cyberspace — a renovation with more privacy, data protection, encryption and transparency.

Important to him in all of this is a question that has nagged him since the election of Donald Trump: What role in his win was played by the data we unconsciously surrender in the deeply flawed cyberspace we wander through every day?

Many observers believe sophisticated online data mining helped Donald Trump become U.S. president in 2016. (Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

Magerman gained momentary fame a couple of years ago as an outspoken critic of Trump — and of his own boss, hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer. Mercer was a pioneer in the use of data for investing, and was an owner of the now-defunct data mining firm Cambridge Analytica, which some believe had a significant role in electing Trump in 2016.

All of that has ultimately driven Magerman to a new purpose in life: To try to strangle the golden goose of the internet economy — data collection — and replace it with something more socially useful and less profit-driven.

He's looking for ideas and, if no one else will, he'll put some of his own money into them.

A better internet

Magerman worked at Mercer's hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, for a couple of decades, using his computer science background to help make a fortune for himself, for Mercer and for the business.

Even then, Magerman was conscious of how little social benefit came from his work. He saw Renaissance Technologies as "a place that uses really bright people, who could do a lot of great things in the world — and simply has them sit at their desks and make money from money." And yet, he was one of those people.

But it was over Trump that Magerman had a tabloid-worthy falling out with Mercer, Trump's most influential backer.  

Magerman argued with Mercer about all of that—specifically about race politics — and was fired. He filed a wrongful dismissal suit with sensational allegations of racism against Mercer that lit up the normally prosaic business press, which had previously reported with envy and awe on the rise of Mercer's company to the pinnacle of the hedge fund world.

Robert Mercer is the enigmatic co-owner of Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis firm that is widely thought to have had a large role in Trump's election win. (Oliver Contreras/Washington Post/Getty Images)

Eventually, the suit was settled. Magerman says he got everything he wanted, but he didn't go back to work. He continued to nurture his bitterness about the 2016 election and a suspicion that Facebook and Cambridge Analytica had somehow helped usher Trump into the White House.

How much data analytics really had to do with the outcome in 2016 we might never know. But it added to Magerman's discomfort with the downside of the internet.

"We are creating social and emotional and psychological cancer for society through how technology is infiltrating and being adopted," he says, echoing the comparison that others have noted between Facebook and the big cigarette companies of the last century.

So, how to change that?

Creating a new 'layer'

Magerman's first foray in the battle was to get behind the Freedom From Facebook campaign, which is trying to persuade regulators to rein in the company and break it up. He was the original donor to the cause last fall with a gift of $400,000.

But breaking up Facebook doesn't guarantee something more socially responsible will slide into its place.

That's where his new partnership with venture capitalists comes in. Last fall, Magerman joined Differential Ventures to work with a couple of angel investors, Nick Adams and Alex Katz. They both have experience seeding start-ups, with an interest in big data and its impacts.

Having made a great deal of money working for Mercer's hedge fund, Magerman is now looking for ways to create a less profit-driven internet. (Jason Burles/CBC)

It's Magerman's hope that they can begin to imagine a new kind of  internet, one built to be safe and secure, where a constrained Facebook and Twitter would be worth just a fraction of what they are today — valued by what they actually do for their customers, not what their customers' personal information does for them.  

"I'm talking about creating that layer," he says, "where everything is encrypted and every single communication in that environment has an identity associated with it — meaning a human being." (Magerman concedes there is a need for some anonymous space to protect dissidents in repressive countries.)

Imagine a Twitter without anonymous trolls and bots, or a Facebook that didn't presume to curate your life — or even a cyberspace safe for children.

Less profit-driven

The problem investors normally have with something like that sounds like a punchline.

"They don't see how to monetize it," says Magerman, "and I think there is truth in that."

But actually, that's the point. Part of the way many internet-based companies have become so fantastically successful is through their indifference to social responsibility. A company that profits by treating its customers as though they're merely data-generating employees is not a socially responsible business model for the internet — it's a parasite.

In the world according to Magerman, a company like Facebook would have to be content with being a $10-billion company, not a $500-billion company.

Therein lies the real obstacle. The first steps toward a new kind of internet will require government intervention, says Magerman. And, since it's ultimately about taking power from the powerful, there will be resistance to that.

Lots of it, and well-funded — through all those profits earned by social media giants thanks to you and the personal data you've given up without so much as a whimper.

About the Author

Keith Boag

Washington Correspondent

One of the CBC's premier political reporters, Keith Boag is currently based in Washington, D.C., following stints in Los Angeles and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.