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Data and the Expansion of Human Freedom: A Q&A with Dr. Nick Couldry

Reassessing the Price of Connection

July 07, 2016 • By Nick Couldry Reassessing the Price of Connection

Everyday life is increasingly based on the assumption of digital connection: the ability to access digital resources, the ability to connect—and be connected to— family, friends, institutions and the wider world, all through the infrastructure of the internet. The link between this connection and the concept of enhancing life seems straightforward. How can such seamless digital connection not enhance life, by enhancing our freedom to connect and be connected? Indeed, many of the hopes for Big Data’s contributions to human knowledge see the data that can be collected through this state of connection as crucial to enhancing the life and health of humanity.

My research project, The Price of Connection, seeks to complicate this view. The internet as an infrastructure of unlimited connection brings with it an automatic consequence: the possibility that, at the same time as one is connected, one is also able to be monitored. In fact, this is more than a possibility. The business models of advertising, the media, and most enterprise today are based upon the assumed ability to continuously monitor audiences and users (actual or potential) as they behave “online.”

But continuous monitoring is what we normally call surveillance. As Bruce Schneier, a security specialist, put it, “the primary business model of the internet is built on mass surveillance.” Mass surveillance in previous stages of history has not been considered compatible with freedom or autonomy. As political theorist Quentin Skinner noted in the wake of the Snowden revelations, “the fact that someone has the power to [read my emails] should they choose leaves us at the mercy of arbitrary power.”

The commercial mass surveillance on which the online economy now depends involves much more than reading our emails. So when Skinner writes that “what is offensive to liberty is the very existence of such arbitrary power,” we surely should take notice. If he is right, there is a potential deep contradiction between the life-enhancing promise of online connection and its practical reality. What if the hidden price of connection is a threat to liberty in some sense, an undermining of the autonomy that have come to regard as essential to democracy and a good life more generally? 

In the first phase of my project, my research assistant and I analyzed the leading reports by the World Economic Forum, OECD, and other large institutions on big data and its promise for enhancing human knowledge. Our first main finding is that while these reports mention in passing some privacy concerns about the mass surveillance on which big data collection depends, their main move is to bypass these concerns by claiming that data is just there, like “oil” or any other natural resource. What matters is that we use it well to our common benefit.

But this ignores a basic point, which is that the “data” was never “just there.” Its collection required an act of surveillance, conducted with or without consent. Insofar as it was obtained without consent, it was not simply “given,” and so data cannot be taken as a natural resource. Data is better understood therefore as the result of an emerging practical order whose consequences for enhancing life need precisely to be explored.

We have also reviewed the legal resources for opening up the normative questions to which this potential conflict between the “freedom” to connect and the unfreedom of continuous surveillance gives rise. 

In the USA, although the US constitution does not give a clear signal, there is a long legal tradition that argues for “the right to be let alone” (famously proposed in the 1890s by Warren and Brandeis). More recently, US legal scholars have called for “informational privacy” or “decisional privacy,” as ways of preserving the space in which the individual has autonomy to decide how he or she acts in the world. For instance, the contemporary legal scholar Julie Cohen has argued that our relations to information systems have major consequences for our possibilities of autonomy as subjects.

It is worth comparing the US legal tradition with the European legal tradition, which has for some decades taken a distinctive view, enshrined for example in the “right to the free development of the personality” that is guaranteed under Articles 1 and 2 of the German Basic Law (grundgesetz). This emphasis on a broader space of personal autonomy also informs the current proposals for new European regulations on Data Protection.

Underlying the European legal position is a philosophical viewpoint, which is the third source we have reviewed: Hegel’s philosophy of freedom, in which an individual’s freedom depends on the mutual recognition between subjects that each has a space of freedom into which they grow, as they develop as a person. This idea is, I would suggest, fundamentally incompatible with the reality of continuous surveillance. If so, then the contradiction between today’s practices of online connection and the principle of autonomy—so central to any project for enhancing life—is a serious one.

In the next months of the project, we will continue to explore this contradiction. First, we will look in detail at the arguments in play in two areas where the promise of Big Data is being intensively applied: health and education. Second, we will continue our exploration of the philosophical resources that might help us think through the implications of this contradiction, and its possible resolution. The results, we hope, will add something important to our understanding of the conditions under which it is, or is not, possible to enhance life in today’s digital world. 

Photo courtesy of Susanne Nilsson via Flickr.