The Head of the Department of Economics & Public Policy at Imperial College Business School on data privacy, attention markets and diversity in academia
Data privacy and the opaque practices of Big Tech are hot topics as fears rise over the power wielded by the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon.
High-profile data breaches, such as the one conducted by Cambridge Analytica, a firm which used Facebook profiles to influence election results, have led to widespread calls for a regulatory crackdown on the world’s biggest technology groups.
In 2016, Tommaso Valletti, Head of the Department of Economics & Public Policy and Professor of Economics at Imperial College Business School, took on the prestigious role of Chief Competition Economist of the European Commission (EC) in Brussels.
During this appointment, which lasted until 2019, Tommaso was on the frontline dealing with Big Tech, running cases relating to the world’s leading technology groups. He believes consumers – who have no way of knowing what is happening to their data and limited capacity for deciding to opt out of using these products – are justified in their concerns.
They [Big Tech firms] have been breaking lots of privacy, electoral, tax and competition rules, while we have become very passive.
"The economic and political power of these companies is unprecedented. They have never released any data to independent researchers – they tell us stories and we have no choice but to believe them," he says.
"Mark Zuckerberg famously said, 'Move fast and break things'. They [Big Tech] have been breaking lots of privacy, electoral, tax and competition rules and we have become very passive – we have to accept whatever terms of service they offer because there is no alternative."
Tommaso’s solution is to try increasing competition as a first step and if that doesn’t work to move onto "more nuclear options", and has gone on record in The New York Times, saying criticism of European regulation is unfair.
Now back in London full-time, Tommaso is planning to begin work on a project directly influenced by his work at the EC: researching Big Tech and attention markets – so-named for the way tech giants compete for consumers' time with rolling content and adverts.
Instead of thinking of Facebook as a social network or Google as a search engine, he is looking at them as companies that are designed to learn about us individually – and at how this knowledge is being used.
"Our attention is ultimately a scarce resource. Google can follow what you’re doing on your emails, Chrome can see what you’re browsing, and your Android operation system knows every single app you are using: they are all owned by the same company. Google now wants to buy Fitbit which is an operating system attached to our bodies 24 hours a day."
Facebook and Google are designed to learn about us individually – and Tommaso is looking at how this knowledge is being used.
Despite Tommaso’s extensive experience and interest in data privacy, as an industrial economist this constitutes just one area of his research.
However, it does fit in with a common thread running through his work: how the internet affects our lives. He is currently working with Imperial College Business School's Chair in Economics, Carol Propper on research investigating whether people are better informed about which hospital treatments they have access to thanks to the web.
Previously, he has researched the impact of broadband technologies on other aspects of our lives, such as house prices and voter turnout.
Among Tommaso’s many professional achievements, including being made Professor of Economics at the University of Rome, he is a member of the panel of academic advisors to Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, he was a member of the panel of academic advisors of the UK Competition Commission and has held several editorial positions, including Editor of Information Economics & Policy and Associate Editor of the Journal of Industrial Economics and of Economica.
Most recently, he was appointed as a Non-Executive Director to the board of the Financial Conduct Authority, a fresh challenge which he is looking forward to – and with Facebook looking to launch its own digital currency "Libra", his experience at the EC will no doubt prove invaluable.
"When I interviewed for the position, I felt they were very much interested in my experience as a competition economist because that isn’t typically the angle they take," he says.
Tommaso's talents also extend beyond the world of business. As a classically trained musician, he has travelled the world playing the flute after training at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
He has also been vocal in his support of more diversity in the wider academic community, saying there is an "aggressive culture", particularly in economics, which "could put people off and must change".
"I refuse to believe that all the talent is concentrated in the hands of the small category of white middle-aged men – a category to which I belong – when others have so much to offer."