Our data is critical to the entire business model of tech companies and we are entitled to some degree of control and compensation.
It is telling that even though the political landscape in the United States is supposed to be divided, there is at least one issue on which the majority of Americans agree: the necessity of restoring some equilibrium to our digital lives.
Google, which recently acquired Fitbit, has turned our likes, dislikes, photos, tastes, locations, purchases, and late-night musings into an $850 million business. A powerful technology company will now have real-time knowledge of our sleep cycles, exercise routines, and heartbeats thanks to Fitbit data. The situation is becoming increasingly alarming for the billions of people who use Google products.
Disrupting the Feed
Even in the current political climate, technology’s impact on our economic, political, and personal lives is so conspicuously outsized and staggeringly unregulated: A digital rights declaration is needed right now.
How do we reach it? The difficult part, the popular will, is already here. According to a recent survey, two-thirds of Americans concur that large technology companies require regulation and, if necessary, dissolution. Even decision-makers concur: Facebook, which collects data from at least 228 million Americans, is currently under investigation for anti-trust violations by 47 out of 50 American attorneys general.
By designing systems that direct the flow of data and profit away from us and toward the wealthiest and most powerful companies in the history of the world, big tech has been able to extract a $4 trillion industry from our personal data. Although these businesses claim to be politically neutral, the majority of them are in close contact with the United States government, whether through contracts with the military or Ice, allowing government surveillance programs access to their users’ data, or serving as one of the largest lobbying forces in Washington.
How did these businesses become so influential?
They’ve monetized our private lives by keeping an eye on us but keeping us in the dark about how or when it happens, how intrusive it is, and how the data it collects is used. Yes, Facebook, Google, and Amazon have offered services that many of us enjoy, find useful, and efficient. But even if we decide to stop using their services and close our accounts, or even if we haven’t signed up for one in the first place, they are still watching us.
Despite claiming to be a pro-privacy company, Apple recently admitted that, like Amazon and Google, its virtual assistants, it routinely recorded and monitored Siri conversations. The software was “accidentally” activated, and conversations between doctors and patients, drug deals, and sexual encounters were recorded in the recordings. As a result of the iPhone’s “conveniences,” Apple also has millions of fingerprints and retina scans. We would all like to think that these biomarkers are only used to protect our phones, but at the moment, we don’t have a right to know if this is true.
Inventors, designers, and “ideas men” like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos are often the focus of tech companies’ narratives about themselves. However, their platforms and services are built on the data we provide and a resource we all paid for: the internet as a whole. US taxpayers provided the initial funding for the internet. We made the internet possible, so why are we responsible for all of its agonizing expenses? Similar to how Big Pharma has monetized publicly funded science research for its own benefit, big tech makes billions of dollars using the same tried-and-true strategy that multinational corporations employ: privatize the profits and share the expenses.
Take a look at the current state of our elections
Tech companies use data brokers to buy and sell the data they have about us to businesses, governments, and shady third parties like Cambridge Analytica or the Russian government. These third parties can then use AI-fueled psychological predictions of who you are and how you think to create individualized programs of manipulation. Your political, consumer, or any other behavior could be the target of this manipulation, and you might never know what’s going on.
The costs of polarizing voters or entangling their attention in online mazes of conspiracy and misinformation are not the responsibility of private businesses. They only serve themselves, by definition. However, this is precisely the reason why the digital bill of rights must first demand that technology companies provide us with adequate control and oversight mechanisms. The authority to continuously audit these technologies and the power to assist journalists and public oversight committees in their design are essential.
We are the product and the road only ends in full control.
We are the product being sold online right now; Without paying us a penny, corporations fill their coffers by monitoring and manipulating us. With just a little imagination and determination, we can accomplish much more. Consider how technological advancements could benefit all of us if, as Bernie Sanders has proposed in his plans for corporate accountability, the Ubers and Airbnbs of the future were at least partially owned by their drivers and employees.
Worst of all, if we don’t act now, the biases and profound inequalities of our current world will be invisible and “baked in” to the technologies that will define the future. This will skew our world’s technologization to discriminate against people who are already racially, sexually, geographically, and economically marginalized.
For instance, a system known as Compas is already in use in courts all over the country. Its purpose is to algorithmically estimate a person’s likelihood of committing a crime in the future.
The process of gathering data follows suit. What if, as we typed into the privately owned search boxes of Amazon and Google as we browsed the internet, we could opt out of being monitored? Or opt in and get paid right away for the information our search yielded? What if we were shown exactly what these businesses know about us?
The relationships between us and our transportation, our loved ones, our jobs, the news, and our hobbies have been technologized in Silicon Valley by “geniuses.” However, our data cannot be produced in a laboratory because it is extracted from everything that makes us human, creative, and alive. Ours is it. As a result, it is time for a digital bill of rights, also known as a “new deal for data,” which has the potential to reestablish equilibrium in the technological realm and guarantee that our data functions for the benefit of all of us based on shared values.
Additionally, the former president advocated for a Digital Bill of Rights that “should include a right to digital due process — in other words, government officials should need a court order to take down online content, not send information requests like the FBI was sending to Twitter.”
Trump stated that the rights to be informed if large online platforms remove, shadow ban, or otherwise restrict their accounts, as well as the ability to appeal and receive an explanation, would be included in the proposed manifesto. It is unclear whether businesses’ mandated speech tolerance would withstand First Amendment litigation.
Trump stated, “In addition, all users over 18 should have the right to completely opt out of content moderation and curation and receive an unmanipulated stream of information if they so choose.”