Breathing room for freedom: How to benefit from digitalization rather than fear it


The EU General Data Protection Regulation was not only a victory for citizens concerned about their rights, but also a Green political success.

A family of four looks over an art installation that looks like a digitalized version of a living room. Black and white photo

Digitally speaking, 2018 was a good year for all of Europe: The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force in May, boosted citizens’ rights and has done more to preserve liberalism in European democracies than any symbolic lip-service to Western liberal values ever could. By the way, it is also a great Green political success.

In a nutshell, the GDPR is a document of several hundred pages that compels corporations and public authorities to let people know if they are collecting data – any kind of data- about them and to inform them what kind of data they are collecting and storing and why, how, and for how long. The regulation provides individuals with the option to demand a stop to such data collection at any time.

The public perception, of course, has been mixed. Some have hailed the regulation as a valuable safeguard of their privacy, while others have decried it as yet another form of overbearing Brussels paternalism. More than one year later, many companies’ privacy notices still lacked the clarity required by the law, counting on the expectation that most users would rather give up their rights by clicking “okay” than read a complicated legal text. And the convenient line “I have nothing to hide” is a quick and easy way to shut down any discussion about personal rights and data protection.

Germans generally view digitalization favorably. In a 2017 survey, 54 percent said they felt they benefit from it, while only 16 percent considered themselves on the losing side of a development that puts more and more digital devices into our hands and increasingly interlaces our private and professional lives. Respondents were divided on whether digitalization would increase social inequality: half feared that it would lead to losses of low-skill jobs.

A lot of the public debate on digitalization focuses on dystopian visions, partly because of such justified fears and much less due to a general skepticism towards technological change. A new technology is always a double-edged sword, which will creatively disrupt (or has already destroyed) old business models, occupational fields and activities, lifestyles, and communicative processes. We know it creates new opportunities, but we wonder what kind of world we will live in, what kind of people we will be. What communities will we form, how will we communicate?

A legitimate fear of surveillance and control

While some observers envisage huge potentials and grand visions of a better, more technologically advanced – or more precisely, data-driven - world, others are already overwhelmed by the complexity of our digital present. For the most part, those fears are not just the figments of nervous minds, but rather, if projected into the future, real dangers. What makes us uneasy is not so much the technology itself, but rather how we handle and process information.

Today’s information society produces data in unprecedented abundance, and yet it seems that we are less and less capable of harnessing this information to generate knowledge that truly helps us understand and interpret our world. A widespread cause of skepticism about a fully digitalized world is fear of surveillance and control. If Edward Snowden had not revealed the extent of intelligence surveillance, European data protection would probably still be in its infancy to this day. The horror of unregulated, boundless surveillance by the intelligence community has roused ancient fears of outside control by powers larger than ourselves.

So we conjure dystopian visions of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or of Dave Eggers’ The Circle. And the first signs that these new worlds are indeed upon us are already being felt in different cultures around the globe. The Social Credit System that is currently being set up in China makes our fears feel very real. Total surveillance holds monstrous potential for violence and oppression, disabling any form of human resistance, autonomy, and freedom.

There is no such thing as the “invisible hand” of Big Data

At the core of all this justified apprehension lies the fear of totalitarian digital access to our very personalities. Beyond dystopias, there are enough real-life examples of Big Data use that send shivers down the spines of digital immigrants (those of us who were born before 1980), from meddling in elections and influencing purchase decisions to predicting crime. But what lessons can we take away from such examples?

  1. When we shudder at Big Data, we actually stand in awe at immense, large-scale stochastic computing power. It totally obliterates our comforting argument that any “surveiller” would simply drown in a sea of data: Not only does the abundance of data pose no problem at all – it is the very prerequisite for obtaining results.
  2. The direction of the data flow has been inversed – it is no longer one-to-many, but many-to-one. The goal now is to create absolutely tailor-made products for each individual, unleashing fantasies about perfectly customized offers of all kinds, all the way to personalized pricing. This reversal is new, but we made it possible because we provide our data willingly and free of charge or because we are unable to object to the exploitation of our data. There is no such thing as an “invisible hand” of Big Data. We all make deliberate decisions to share our own data, and that should actually give us some hope: Enlightened humanity has defeated far worse monsters than the data kraken. We can cope with this, too.
  3. At times, the problem is that we fall prey to the myths pushed by digital technology providers and we are deafened by the white noise of their metaphors. One of the great myths was that use of digital services is free. But word has finally gotten around: Users do pay - with their data.

However, this realization has powered a new myth that data are somewhat like oil, an unexploited commodity that has been lying around for thousands of years and now simply needs to be extracted. Whoever takes advantage of it will come out on top: what used to be the oil tycoon is now a data tycoon. It is absolutely amazing how the industry managed to make a technologically highly sophisticated activity such as data processing seem like a natural occurrence. Data, the myth goes, are something natural, they are just sitting around for us to harvest, and what is more: The data themselves possess certain innate qualities, in particular, fluency – another metaphor from the natural realm. Data want to flow. And they tend to condense in - yes, clouds, another natural phenomenon over which we humans wield no influence.

Yet this “naturalization” is something which we must strongly resist. Data, the raw material of the profit giants of early digital capitalism, are nothing less than our very own lives - our habits, our behaviors, our preferences, desires, health conditions, addictions, and yearnings. The first and most pressing question is therefore: what does it mean to have our entire lives datafied? If left unregulated and uncontrolled, datafication spells the expropriation of our lives, an unprecedented form of serfdom.

Global players need global rules

If this is why we are anxious about the digital age, then our fears are justified. There is an enormous need for regulation, which must contend with two interconnected phenomena: velocity and ubiquity. Velocity, because the sheer speed of technological development always condemns regulatory efforts to be but a delayed, retroactive response. A new regulation, painstakingly elaborated in an orderly legislative process, will barely have gotten over its teething troubles before it’s already rendered obsolete by the next generation of new technology, which will also need regulation. Ubiquity is a challenge because strictly speaking, in order to be effective, any new regulation would have to apply everywhere in the world.

Global players need global rules. One glance at the UN’s capacity for action makes us lose any hope for any worldwide regulations in the foreseeable future if they don’t promote major market interests. At least Europe has taken the first courageous step. The GDPR is based on our right to freely unfold our personality, as embedded in the German Constitution, and from which the Federal Constitutional Court developed the right to informational self-determination in the 1980s.

Each individual’s value and dignity are based on self-determination. In the digital age, this also includes control over our own data and the information derived from them. “Freedom presupposes distance - a certain amount of social space between the individual and others - including supervising bodies.” These are the words of Julie Cohen, a US lawyer and technology expert, who defines privacy as a “breathing room” where each individual can unfold as a free citizen. We can only do that if we live free from surveillance and observation. Like every new technological age, digitalization makes us rethink what it means to be human.

It forces us to put a value on everyday actions that we used to not even view in this light, for example, when we buy a book by a certain author, when we show an interest in politics or sports, when we communicate. This seems new, but we have gone through the same process with ecology: we learned that natural resources have a price that is economically relevant; that the sun, the wind, the air we breathe all have a value. The great learning task of the 21st century is to recognize and measure the value of the data traces we leave behind as we go through life before others commercialize and privatize them. Data is not oil, and our freedom is not merchandise.
In the next few years, our task will be to take the sceptics’ unease about digitalization seriously and to channel these “negative” energies into productive legislative decisions. For that to succeed we will need strong civil societies that leave spaces for watch dogs and whistle blowers.

Our aim must be to unmask the myths about digitalization, to soberly weigh opportunities against risks, and to develop ethics and risk assessments that anticipate developments as much as possible. We must do this in all areas of life, as simultaneously and globally as possible: in communication, business, politics, education, science, the arts, and in culture. The challenge is great, but that does not make it exceptional.

Note: A German version of this article was first published on January 25, 2018 in Böll.Thema 1/2018: digital ist okay!