Human rights in our digital life: privacy vs. freedom of speech

What happens when you go grocery shopping in Vancouver? You talk. Constantly. With the people standing beside you in line, with the security guard, the sales person and the cashier. You talk about your day, your plans, your life. You share. Not just online, but in person. As a European, it takes some getting used to. Because we are private people. We stand quietly in line and don’t have the urge to talk to strangers around us. We are often on our phone instead. To stay in our private bubble. Or so we think. Because we are not completely aware of what is happening behind the scenes of our phones.

It is becoming clearer that we as digital humans are paying a price for our digital life. Just last week, Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emerita at the Harvard Business School published her long-awaited exposé of the digital business model: “The age of Surveillance Capitalism”. She argues that the digital revolution should not be viewed as the latest form of industrialization, but as a new market form; a ‘surveillance capitalism’. Companies such as Facebook and Google generate and trade in infinite data, derived from our digital behavior to predict and influence our future actions. And they go the extra mile, that’s for sure. They look at the exclamation points in our posts, not merely the content of what we write. They look at how we walk and not merely where we walk. Today, it’s easier to hide being dyslectic from your boss at work than from your search engine. ‘Smart’ is a synonym for giving away personal information about your everyday routine, interests and beliefs. And all without even asking.

I hear you thinking: What’s new? And what’s wrong with it?

First of all, they leave us in the dark. We know that when we search for a new pair of running shoes, we will magically get advertisement on sports watches or running events. And we are OK with that. Because we see what is happening and we know that advertisement is just part of this world. But in fact, we are left in the dark about what is going on behind the scenes. The data collected from our digital behavior is used for commercial purposes, but nobody really tells us how and what exactly happens with it. And the data is not just used for predicting future behavior. The next step is automating our behavior. Think about it this way: engineers are like musicians; they are learning how to write music and then they let the music make us dance.

Second, we are not the owners of our own data. Or even better: why is it their data in the first place? The moment we start using digital platforms, we give away data. And what happens then, is out of our hands. We are denied access to or control over knowledge derived from our digital actions. And the digital companies are creating their entire business model around it. They make profit from our digital behavior. As Zuboff states, we have become ‘human natural resources’. And what is striking? We generally just assume this is a natural result of the digital transformation. But it is not. Digital technology can take many forms and have many effects. It’s the societal and economic logic that influence what it looks like or results in.

We feel trapped however. Because this is happening on the same channels that we rely upon daily for personal interaction, services, entertainment and information. I for one relied on technology to create my new home after moving across the globe. And it is not just me using my phone to make my life easier. My phone helps me without me even asking for it: Instagram tells me to download DoorDash in Vancouver instead of my Belgian food delivery app and Facebook recommends me to become member of different community pages in my neighborhood. My phone helped me discover my new city and meet new people. So, hooray for technology!

But the question remains: what is there to do? How can society take the edge off raw capitalism and legislate the digital world?

It is one of the global issues that should be addressed in an international context. But it won’t be easy. Because cultural values and social norms have a huge impact on how we look at privacy. It has become clear to me that North-Americans are not really concerned with their privacy in a way Europeans are. In general, North-Americans like sharing their personal lives as a way to connect with others. Europeans however see privacy as a fundamental right. With GDPR, Europe has taken a first step in legislating the digital world. But ‘the right to be forgotten’ and ‘the right to disconnect’ won’t soon be copied by North-America. Because freedom of expression is enshrined in the Canadian and USA constitutions. As Jennifer Granick, the Director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society states: “Europeans think of the right to privacy as a fundamental human right, in the way that North-Americans think of freedom of expression.” But it is however only by creating international rules about digital privacy that tech companies will be forced to create new business models.

We are living through one of the most profound transformations in all of human history. But the problem with living through a revolution is that it’s challenging to take the long view. And in the end, we all must confess that we are clueless about where it’s heading. So, we as digital users should become more aware of what is happening. We should think about the fact that today, we are unconsciously sharing personal information with companies such as Google that we are not always comfortable sharing in person. And in a broader sense, we as society should be looking for ways to steer the transformation towards the direction we want it to go.

Author: Mieke De Sutter