Data as a Common Good: Contesting the Business Model of Data Analytics

Do we have an ethical imperative about the role of privacy in a digitally intensive world? The substantial use of the online user data seems to have warranted the need of rethinking privacy. Privacy is private and intimate. It cannot be privatized and sold to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, the sale of privacy of people is happening on huge scsle in our society today. Digital technologies have become part of our life and hence, it has become easy to manipulate innocent and unsuspecting people. Hence, we can already notice a rising concern about the manner in which the Big Data Barons are milking private information and the manner in which they influence individuals threatens to undermine the autonomy of individual persons. This theft of individual autonomy also becomes an attack on democracy as these Big Data Barons ultimately weaken the autonomy / self-determination of citizens and even Governments.

Traditionally privacy has been valued as an individual good. It was seen as necessary to protect individual right to intimacy, creativity, self-expression and personhood. This view limits privacy as an individual good. Now that our collective life/ democracy is under threat, it is opportune time for us to think of privacy as a common good. We need right to privacy not just to protect our individual life but also to protect our democracy. Data is produced by individual on social media platforms, websites and smart devices. But the Big Data Barons use data analytics and use the data as raw material to accumulate capital. Data analytics is exceptionally good at generating patterns of human behaviour. These patterns are then used to direct human behaviour so that the same may be used for desired profit by those that are willing to pay a price to the Big Data Barons. The more data is accumulated data analytics exhibits better predictive power. This is why privacy incursions are intensified and incentivized.

Data throws up information about our decision-making vulnerabilities and biases which is then used manipulate our decision making. This means the main business model of data analytics is one that undermines our individual autonomy. This does not mean that data is not employed as a public good. It is used as a public good by several governments to guide real time traffic or to respond to life threatening diseases like Covid-19. But the weakening of individual autonomy is dangerous to any society as well as thriving democracy. Autonomy oF an individual human person is an in alienable good that cannot be violated at any cost. Autonomous individuals are governed by their own principles, desires, values, goals, and characteristics rather than any force or coercion. This means his/her actions arise out of inner freedom and not out of any manipulation. Big data techniques provide the ability to big business as well as politics to influence our decision making which affects our capacity to act and choose autonomously.

The Big Data Barons can manipulate individual persons through tailoring and personalization. This means they use intimate information of a person to tailor the products and services (of those who employ them) with the help of algorithms to each individual. This is why different users see different search results, different kind of ads to different products, and different recommendation to videos on you tube or OTT platforms. This means this filtering, tailoring and personalization is creating a ‘filter bubble’ that is crafted for each of us. Each individual is led to access different filter bubbles and we are deceptively led to think that everyone is accessing the same information. In fact, the information that we access is biased with corporate interests. This is how our autonomy is disempowered and our informed decision making is crippled. The scandal of Cambridge Analytica is infamous for intruding the freedoms of people by using what came to be called psychographic profiling which enabled them to micro-target individuals with manipulative political content. This is why self-determination of people is taken away and democracy is made lame if not blind. Therefore, what one can do with Big Data Analytics raises a huge concern. Hence, there is a demand to consider private data as belonging to the common good.

John Rawls teaches that common good is a sum total of social conditions that answer to the interests attached to the position of equality of citizenship. Protection of self-determination is fundamental to any democracy. Hence, right to privacy is central for any democracy to thrive. This requires us to protect privacy at all cost to continue to enjoy our democracy. This means privacy piracy through data theft done by the Big Data Barons cannot be allowed. Privacy, therefore, is not just high valued individual good but one that belongs to the order of common good without which democracy itself is in danger. Therefore, the argument that says one who has nothing to hide should not fear is unfounded. Even if one has nothing to hide, the protection of privacy still matters. When data becomes a common good, we have already won against those that prey on human vulnerabilities and use manipulative techniques to make them promote corporate or political interes rights Privacy is not just about individuals like you and me. It is about us.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao