Thursday, 5 April 2018

Data, big business and human rights

Data protection and privacy is among the most important and high-profile issues where 'business' and 'human rights' intersect.

Are some media-tech firms so large and influential that their social impact cannot be regulated? Or is the issue more about a sufficient constituency of public consumer-citizen demand for proper regulation?

This week saw news reports that Facebook may have 'improperly shared' the data of 87 million users with political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, linked to the Trump presidential campaign.

In this post I simply paste below a paragraph from a forthcoming paper I have written on how these sorts of issues and crises are treated in popular culture. Hollywood may no longer be a credible barometer or bearer of moral messaging, and nor has it yet produced the definitive movie of our age in relation to our lives online. Still, from 1995's The Net to 2015's Ex­_Machina we do see some reflection of (Western) societies' anxieties and trajectories in relation to the commodification of data and privacy issues.

This is what the paragraph says:

"... One critic describes Ex­_Machina as one examination of ‘how corporations have been freed from all forms of social responsibility in the digital age’ (Allen 2016*). That is an overstatement, but Allen does observe that in movies of this sort the issue is not so much corporate access to one’s private life as the role that individual consumers (out of apathy, convenience, ignorance, trust or other factors) play in enabling corporations to ‘take on a life of their own’ and accumulate so much potential influence over private data. The significance of this movie (or more accurately this type of movie -- it was not a blockbuster) might lie in what it tells us about the mix of regulation vs. consumer preferences in this and other areas of corporate ethics and responsibility. After all, if informed consumers are not motivated to press home data-related human rights concerns in any concerted way, what are the prospects for influencing, expanding and sustaining corporate self-regulation or industry or state regulation to protect those same concerns?"

How does this relate to current debate on Facebook's data management?

Consumers do need to know and understand issues before they can be a constituency of demand for better regulatory interventions.

But social media and other technologies may be so convenient and/or seductive that if the balance of regulation on data privacy ends up not favouring the individual, it may not be that we are all the blameless victims of some elaborate corporate strategy to undermine human rights.

It may be that we have done this to ourselves.


* Allen, A., (2016) ‘How the ‘Evil Corporation’ Became a Pop-Culture Trope’ The Atlantic, 25 April 2016.

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