Taking Back Control Of Our Data.
“Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us.” Thus, in 1996, John Perry Barlow laid out his manifesto, the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, in which he encapsulated a philosophy flowing through the heart of worldwide web. His was a vision that would come to dominate the internet today, a thread that went from Timothy Leary to Stewart Brand to Steve Jobs to our current tech giants. Such is the dominance of this philosophy that it has spawned a new creed, “dataism”. The central principle of this dogma is the free flow of data, unrestricted and unregulated. This libertarian view of information uniquely sought to attach freedom to a concept – the flow of information – rather than to a human liberty. It provided the ideological architecture for the internet that we know today – ubiquitous and pervasive, that leaves a data trail in its wake.
Almost everything we do – keeping in touch, online shopping, watching television – leaves a data trail. The resulting data-sets feed the opaque algorithms that shape the cyber world we see and interact with. Yet that data concerns our personal information – the most basic tenets of who we are. While these algorithms become ever more powerful – some say even able to detect our sexuality with alarming accuracy – they are at the same time swallowing increasing amounts of information from us. The resulting information is then “fed into databases and assembled into profiles of unprecedented depth and specificity.” Three of my recent cases illustrate the effect of data and profiling on our fundamental humanity – illustrating the effects on our intimate relationships, our financial security and even our democracy. Those cases also illustrate something starker; that a movement is growing to liberate data from the technological giants of our age. As data becomes akin to a new commodity, the oil of the digital age, individuals have begun to claim a stake in determining for themselves when, how and to what extent information about them is held and communicated to others.
The ability to do so is not new. Indeed, as John Perry Barlow was extolling the virtues of the liberated cyberspace, a regulatory framework was evolving at the same time. That framework is premised on a conception of fundamental rights, and the “data protection principles” – at their core: access, control and accountability. Those principles create a charter around which data is governed and protected to give individuals agency over their information. They were settled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in 1980, with the agreement of the United States. Yet while the European Union has taken the initiative and developed an increasingly sophisticated and comprehensive framework, as its most recent incarnation, the General Data Protection Regulation, shows, the United States favoured a piecemeal and ad hoc approach. The result is a hierarchy of data protection, with the US cut adrift from the EU.
The instinctive reaction when faced with the power of data is to wonder what can be done, given the necessity of technology in our modern lives. However, the data protection framework shows that we do not have to live a world where decisions are made about us and our lives indelibly marked without our knowledge or consent. We would not tolerate such a stance in any other walk of life and we have a regulatory framework to allow us to exercise control and forge recalibrated relationships with those who seek to use and profit from our data. Through citizen activism, we can bring cases to challenge these practices and set standards by which data is respected. In addition, technology, services and campaigns have been launched to seek to understand the use of data and reclaim it. The ability to access and control data can have a tangible affect, including on our democratic process itself. This is not to question the importance of technological advances. The digital revolution and the use of data have given us tremendous benefits. Rather, we need to be vigilant and active to ensure that “people’s fundamental privacy rights are not sacrificed in the name of innovation”. Those rights have too often been ignored, and it is taking a groundswell of citizen activism to flip the script and hold power to account by individuals asking for their data and determining its use. We are at a watershed moment of a citizen-led demand for data rights, with the hallmarks of a new civil rights movement enmeshed within it. However, the efficacy of any laws depends on individuals relying on them. The gift is in your hands. This is your data; these are your rights.
Credit: Ravi Naik for The Guardian 3 October 2017.