What’s new in research: networks of control built on digital tracking, new models of internet governance

pdpEcho is kicking off 2017 with a brief catalogue of interesting recently published research that sets the tone for the new year.

1474043869-800pxFirst, Wolfie Christl and Sarah Spiekermann‘s report on “Networks of Control”, published last month, is a must read for anyone that wants to understand how the digital economy functions on the streams of data we all generate, while reflecting on the ethical implications of this economic model and proposing new models that would try keep the surveillance society afar. Second, a new report of the Global Commission of Internet Governance explores global governance gaps created by existing global governance structures developed in the analog age. Third, the American Academy of Sciences recently published a report with concrete proposals on how to reconcile the use of different public and private sources of data for government statistics with privacy and confidentiality. Last, a volume by Angela Daly that was recently published by Hart Publishing explores how EU competition law, sector specific regulation, data protection and human rights law could tackle concentrations of power for the benefit of users.

 

  1. “Networks of control. A Report on Corporate Surveillance, Digital Tracking, Big Data & Privacy”, by Wolfie Christl, Sarah Spiekermann  [OPEN ACCESS]

“Around the same time as Apple introduced its first smartphone and Facebook reached 30 million users in 2007, online advertisers started to use individual-level data to profile and target users individually (Deighton and Johnson 2013, p. 45). Less than ten years later, ubiquitous and real-time corporate surveillance has become a “convenient byproduct of ordinary daily transactions and interactions” (De Zwart et al 2014, p. 746). We have entered a surveillance society as David Lyon foresaw it already in the early 1990s; a society in which the practices of “social sorting”, the permanent monitoring and classification of the whole population through information technology and software algorithms, have silently become an everyday reality” (p. 118).

One of the realities we need to take into account when assessing this phenomenon is that “Opting out of digital tracking becomes increasingly difficult. Individuals can hardly avoid consenting to data collection without opting out of much of modern life. In addition, persons who don’t participate in data collection, who don’t have social networking accounts or too thin credit reports, could be judged as “suspicious” and “too risky” in advance” (p. 129).

The authors of the report explain that the title “Networks of Control” is justified “by the fact that there is not one single corporate entity that by itself controls today’s data flows. Many companies co-operate at a large scale to complete their profiles about us through various networks they have built up” (p. 7). They also explain that they want to close a gap created by the fact that “the full degree and scale of personal data collection, use and – in particular – abuse has not been scrutinized closely enough”, despite the fact that “media and special interest groups are aware of these developments for a while now” (p. 7).

What I found valuable in the approach of the study is that it also brings forward a topic that is rarely discussed when analysing Big Data, digital tracking and so on: the attempt of such practices to change behaviour at scale. “Data richness is increasingly used to correct us or incentivize us to correct ourselves. It is used to “nudge” us to act differently. As a result of this continued nudging, influencing and incentivation, our autonomy suffers (p. 7)”.

A chapter authored by Professor Sarah Spiekermann explores the ethical implications of the networks of control. She applies three ethical normative theories to personal data markets: “The Utilitarian calculus, which is the original philosophy underlying modern economics (Mill 1863/1987). The Kantian duty perspective, which has been a cornerstone for what we historically call “The Enlightenment” (Kant 1784/2009), and finally Virtue Ethics, an approach to life that originates in Aristotle’s thinking about human flourishing and has seen considerable revival over the past 30 years (MacIntyre 1984)” (p. 131).

Methodologically, the report is based on “a systematic literature review and analysis of hundreds of documents and builds on previous research by scholars in various disciplines such as computer science, information technology, data security, economics, marketing, law, media studies, sociology and surveillance studies” (p. 10).

2. Global Commission on Internet Governance “Corporate Accountability for a Free and Open Internet”, by Rebecca MacKinnon, Nathalie Maréchal and Priya Kumar  [OPEN ACCESS]

The report shows that “as of July 2016, more than 3.4 billion people were estimated to have joined the global population of Internet users, a population with fastest one-year growth in India (a stunning 30 percent) followed by strong double digit growth in an assortment of countries across Africa (Internet Live Stats 2016a; 2016b)” (p. 1).

“Yet the world’s newest users have less freedom to speak their minds, gain access to information or organize around civil, political and religious interests than those who first logged on to the Internet five years ago” (p. 1).

Within this framework, the report explores the fact that “ICT sector companies have played a prominent role in Internet governance organizations, mechanisms and processes over the past two decades. Companies in other sectors also play an expanding role in global governance. Multinational companies wield more power than many governments over not only digital information flows but also the global flow of goods, services and labour: onethird of world trade is between corporations, and another third is intra-firm, between subsidiaries of the same multinational enterprise” (p. 5).

The authors also look at the tensions between governments and global companies with regard to requests for access to data, to weaken encryption and facilitate censorship in ways that contravene international human rights standards.

3. “Innovations in Federal Statistics: Combining Data Sources While Protecting Privacy”, by National Academy of Sciences [OPEN ACCESS]. 

The tension between privacy on one hand and statistical data and censuses on the other hand compelled the German Constitutional Court to create in the ’80s “the right to informational self-determination”. Could statistics bring a significant reform of such sort to the US? Never say never.

According to epic.org, the US National Academy of Sciences recently published a report that examines how disparate federal data sources can be used for policy research while protecting privacy.

The study shows that in the decentralised US statistical system, there are 13 agencies whose mission is primarily the creation and dissemination of statistics and more than 100 agencies who engage in statistical activities. There is a need for stronger coordination and collaboration to enable access to and evaluation of administrative and private-sector data sources for federal statistics. For this purpose, the report advices that “a new entity or an existing entity should be designated to facilitate secure access to data for statistical purposes to enhance the quality of federal statistics. Privacy protections would have to be fundamental to the mission of this entity“. Moreover, “the data for which it has responsibility would need to have legal protections for confidentiality and be protected using the strongest privacy protocols offered to personally identifiable information while permitting statistical use”.

One of the conclusions of the report is that “Federal statistical agencies should adopt modern database, cryptography, privacy-preserving and privacy-enhancing technologies”. 

4. Private Power, Online Information Flows and EU Law. Mind The Gap, by Angela Daly, Hart Publishing [50 pounds]

“This monograph examines how European Union law and regulation address concentrations of private economic power which impede free information flows on the Internet to the detriment of Internet users’ autonomy. In particular, competition law, sector specific regulation (if it exists), data protection and human rights law are considered and assessed to the extent they can tackle such concentrations of power for the benefit of users.

Using a series of illustrative case studies, of Internet provision, search, mobile devices and app stores, and the cloud, the work demonstrates the gaps that currently exist in EU law and regulation. It is argued that these gaps exist due, in part, to current overarching trends guiding the regulation of economic power, namely neoliberalism, by which only the situation of market failure can invite ex ante rules, buoyed by the lobbying of regulators and legislators by those in possession of such economic power to achieve outcomes which favour their businesses.

Given this systemic, and extra-legal, nature of the reasons as to why the gaps exist, solutions from outside the system are proposed at the end of each case study. This study will appeal to EU competition lawyers and media lawyers.”

Enjoy the read! (Unless the reform of the EU e-Privacy rules is taking much of your time these days – in this case, bookmark the reports of interest and save them for later).
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