Covid-19 has pulled the curtain on many of society’s ills. As our lives moved to Zoom, Slack, Google Docs and Classrooms, our reliance on unsecured and non-private digital services has become painfully apparent. The pandemic, moreover, revealed our governments’ eagerness to reach for surveillance as a first response, to contract out essential services to Silicon Valley’s elite and to entrust those same companies with some of the most sensitive data about us; often with little public scrutiny, oversight, or guarantees about our privacy. Meanwhile, the essential workers who put their lives at risk to deliver us food and other necessities are finding themselves tracked and traced by an employer who cares more about its bottom-line than their well-being.
While some of these revelations may be new, for many this digital dystopia arrived long before the pandemic. The world has long looked desolate to gig workers managed by algorithms, living from one notification to the next. Or refugees, often the guinea pigs for new surveillance technologies. We must never forget the countless American immigrants who are located and deported by ICE, with help of their phone data. And then there are those who failed their credit checks due to erroneous data hoovered up by data brokers, or saw their insurance premiums rise because they happened to live in the ‘wrong’ zip code. The arrival of facial recognition further sealed our fate, recognising some of us some of the time and almost always at the wrong time. And finally, dystopia was unleashed on all of us, when our social media platforms exposed us to micro-targeting and allowed for extensive disinformation campaigns. With those in the margins dealt the hardest blows.
Yes we need data on a collective scale to help inform us, coordinate our activities and solve some of the world’s hardest problems. Just like we need continued access to digital services and infrastructures to live our lives. But the choice between Zoom and privacy, or between public health and democratic control over our data, is a false one. A faustian bargain we never needed to make.
Another world is possible. One in which we, the people, retain control over how data about us is collected, accessed and used. Where the utilities we rely on for our daily functioning are under democratic control. Where we can opt out of a social media platform, without losing our friends. Where we can trust the platforms and digital services to not surveil us. Where algorithms are optimised for human agency, not cost efficiency or profit. A world in which the machines work for, not against us.
Manifesting that world requires us all to work together. Privacy - or the control of the flow of information - is not solely an individual affair. As this pandemic made clear, once again, data about us individually and collectively can help us deliver public benefit. Today in the form of public health responses, tomorrow perhaps in the form of monitoring the climate crisis. But, without proper controls, data shared by one can be used against all of us. We can’t rely on individual consent alone to properly govern our data. What is more, reigning in the power of the largest monopolies that provide services we all rely on, will require us all to rise up together.
Together we must imagine alternative futures, demand democratic control, build alternative governance models and defend against the worst harms, as they take place.
What could other realities look like? Can we imagine a company as powerful and omni-present as Amazon to become a public utility? What would our lives look like in that case? Would your daily life look different if your Zoom call was just between you and the person you are calling? Or if you could donate your health data to research, without your health insurer also gaining access?
It’s hard to imagine a way out of our current reality, but as Lucille Clifton wrote: “We cannot create what we cannot imagine”. We must look at historical examples, at present-day alternatives, as well as art and science-fiction to help us envision new worlds.
- Collective and democratic control over our digital infrastructure, essential digital services and platforms.
- Collective control over our data resources and infrastructure. For instance in the form of data trusts, data commons, data cooperatives, or data unions.
- Free movement and communication between platforms, through interoperability.
- The right and ability for digital communities to govern themselves and their borders, free from surveillance
- A universal bill of digital rights
We need to prefigure digital commons and create alternatives for those who want to opt out of the surveillance economy. Many users of online services want better, many companies want to do better, but at the moment they have few alternative models available to them. And what about researchers and nonprofit looking to use data in ways that would benefit society at large. How could we help them do so without putting ourselves at risk?
Build with the most vulnerable in mind; build with public good in mind. Build with a diverse collection of voices in the room.
Until we build ourselves better futures, we need to defend against the worst harms.
- We must hold our governments accountable and not stand by silently as they handover the keys of the kingdom to tech firms.
- We must fight privacy and human rights violation in courts and on the street
- We must aid in the adoption of privacy-aware and secure tools
- We must defend the digital commons from corporate capture
- We must defend against a free flow of data between nation-states, without a Universal Bill of Data Rights
What you can do right now!
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