The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street are just a couple of examples of social movements that originated and organised within and with the tools provided by the internet. The current digital environment has evolved to become the third arm of a generation that has found in it the connectivity necessary to imagine and design social change. However, as this technology develops, attention turns to the loss of privacy brought along. Indeed, this loss of privacy is the key to political success nowadays, and some countries are relying on big internet corporations to maintain the state of welfare.

Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York. Photo by Accra Shepp for The New York Times.

Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York. Photo by Accra Shepp for The New York Times.

Yajaira Saavedra at rally calling for passage of a bill now known as the Dream Act. Photo by Accra Shepp for The New York Times.

Yajaira Saavedra at rally calling for passage of a bill now known as the Dream Act. Photo by Accra Shepp for The New York Times.

The financial crisis of 2008 was the beginning of the end of the idea that governments can play a key role in the promotion of social protection and well-being; the end of the so-called state of welfare. Indeed, democratic administrations are now partly delegating their responsibilities of policy-making to internet enterprises in order to achieve political objectives. Nevertheless, this tendency of outsourcing may be damaging to democracy. This is, at least, what digital philosophers such as Evgeny Morozov think. Morozov believes that technology is being sold to us as a way of emancipation from a broken welfare state that cannot protect us anymore. The question is whether putting one’s life in the hands of technology makes us more equal or, on the contrary, widens the gap between classes and social groups.

The process of digitalisation seems to come at a high price, with control and monitoring becoming invasive and nearly ubiquitous. Our life choices can be evaluated and technology can prognosticate our future. Access to these technologies means that our decisions with regards to education, nourishment, or health will classify us by our potential and prospects in life. For example, if you are born inside a context in which you can’t enjoy a healthy lifestyle, digital technologies will know that your chances to get sick will be higher. This could automatically block you from accessing certain health insurances. Then, will technology limit our right to thrive?

Patrick Chappatte on internet privacy for The New York Time, 2017.

Patrick Chappatte on internet privacy for The New York Time, 2017.

It is not science fiction; it is already happening. For instance, President Donald Trump just signed a new internet privacy bill with which suppliers can sell their users´ sensitive data to advertising companies. This includes geolocation, financial, or medical information. When navigating the net from the US, next time you come across a conveniently placed ad offering you a personal loan, think twice; they know you need it and it might not be the best you can get. Although this trend may grow in the future, in Europe things are still a bit different. In this part of the world, suppliers must ask their users to consent to their policy of cookies. This means than Europeans can accept or deny storing this small piece of data that can be used to tailor their experience on the internet.

This process in which policy-makers and technology merge to solve citizens´ problems can lead to what Morozov calls “techno-populism.” As defined by Robert Atkinson, president of the Washington, DC-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, techno-populism is “a doctrine where people allow their passion for a technology issue to push for change, leading to hyperbole and demonising a differing viewpoint.” This can cloud judgement, and it is the reason why thinkers and activists such as Morozov demand a technological sovereignty as a response to the commercialisation of our personal information. The only way to achieve this, he points, would be to “treat data as a factor of production, and as something that probably has to be owned by us citizens.” Therefore, there shouldn’t exist any commercial interest behind the use of sensitive data, if we want to solve today’s social problems.

Human figures as a data collective. ASCII artwork source: Chris.com

Human figures as a data collective. ASCII artwork source: Chris.com

Big internet corporations are taking advantage of the economic instability and policy-makers are providing the policy frame needed to use users´ data to commercial ends. The latest example of this could be seen in the acquisition of the retail grocery chain Whole Foods by Amazon. This company is not particularly interested in selling you food, however, Amazon seems to be extremely keen to know the information that can be obtained from your dietary choices. Having access to the information of what a family eats can facilitate Amazon to upsell related items. Is it, then, time to demand digital sovereignty, or will we passively watch as technology make us victims of our own choices?

Words: Sergio López

Copy edited by Elena Stanciu