5 min readThe world needs a Bill of Data Rights

Data is an important resource and must be protected at all costs. Why then aren’t countries creating their own Bill of Data Rights?

If you’ve been online recently, then you probably have noticed banners in websites which states something like this:

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Ever wondered what these banners were for, and why, in the 20+ years since the term “internet” was formally defined, websites felt the need to inform their users of the data they are collecting? For one, this is in compliance to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which strives to protect data and the privacy of individuals within the European Union (EU) and the European Economic Area (EEA). But what about the US and other countries outside EU and EEA? How are their data being protected?

In the US and a large part of the world, data privacy and protection relies on the principle of data ownership. Under this principle, internet users are considered as “owners” of all the data they create when they go online. As owners of the data, users have the capacity to control access to their property. Of course, maintaining and managing of data is the responsibility of the owner. So if you want to know who has access to the data you put out in the internet, you should strive to read every privacy policy, and terms of agreement thrown your way.

Needless to say, data ownership is crippling [see Here’s All The Data Facebook And Google Has On You to better understand this statement], especially with the huge digital shadow we leave online. For Martin Tisne, experience shows that a large number of unfair use of data cannot be resolved by controlling WHO has access to it. Instead, the government should make regulations that will control HOW data is being used. Tisne proposes the creation of a Bill of Data Rights which has the following provisions:

  1. The right of the people to be secure against unreasonable surveillance shall not be violated.
  2. No person shall have his or her behavior surreptitiously manipulated.
  3. No person shal be unfairly discriminated against on the basis of data.

While these proposed provisions look simple at first glance, they will require the full commitment of the government. It means the creation of a new set of institutions and legal instruments that have the capacity to safeguard the new rights that will be laid out.

Why It Matters

Data ownership relies on the idea that data is either a source of capital or a product of labor. We look at data as if it is something that can be owned and controlled. But reality shows us that we cannot own most of our data, or even if we decide that we no longer want to take part of the huge machinery that is the internet, secluding ourself from the rest of the world will not protect us from the unfair practices that arise out of data use [see article on Silicon Valley Refuseniks: Technology Is Highjacking Your Brain and Tim Cook: Our Information Is Being Weaponized Against Us to get an idea on how technology developed out of our own data can cause damage].

In order for the idea of data rights to take hold, we must develop a new paradigm for understanding data. And to develop this new paradigm, we must begin to see how aggregate data, the data of everyone on the planet, can be used to develop patterns that may affect us negatively. In the same way that large amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere could lead to ireparable damage to the environment, data privacy (or the lack of it) could cause fundamental damage to the world’s social fabric.

The EU and EEA has began to realize the power of data to modify social and institutional relationships. It has already began to take the first steps toward data and privacy protection through the GDPR. But the rest of the world remains clueless to this. They continue torely on cheap, unregulated technology, without realizing how every action they make on their gadgets are recorded. Their data continue to feed and populate servers used to train machine learning (ML) algorithms, without receiving any compensation in return.

This would have been all good if all ML algorithms were developed to alleviate poverty and eradicate hardship in the world. But as AI technologies are being developed by the world’s largest corporations, they are only meant to bring profit and power to its developers. These technologies will never be used to create a just and equitable society as long as corporations are in charge of developments. The government must exercise its power, reign in corporations, and guide the development towards higher social goals. On the other hand, citizens must also realize their economic power, and in doing so, strive to support businesses which utilize their data in a way that will benefit society in general.

What will push governments, businesses, and citizens towards a new paradigm? In the end, it all comes back to answering the question: what is the meaning of our life on earth? If life is all about accumulating wealth and power, then all of the activities of the past makes sense.

But there is something seriously wrong about the society we have created [for some examples see the articles What is Transhumanism? and Understanding Biotechnology]. Something has to change. And with the Internet becoming the greatest force of our society today, lasting change might begin there. Perhaps, data rights and the creation of a new paradigm in understanding data and privacy may just be the key towards a better future.

…privacy is not a reactive right to shield oneself from society. It is about freedom to develop the self away from commerce and away from governmental control… data rights are fundamentally about securing a space for individual freedom and agency while participating in modern society.

Martin Tisne, Its Time For A Bill Of Data Rights

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