In a world where data reigns supreme, how can individuals protect their privacy and autonomy?
In March, the media revealed that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica exploited the data of Facebook users to conduct a highly coordinated misinformation campaign.
Users affected by Cambridge Analytica did not consent to their data being used for political purposes. To make matters worse, Cambridge Analytica used this data to target the owners of the data with advertisements that fit the mold of each users’ biases. For example, far-left voters in the UK were hit with a series of ads that claimed that Brexit would support workers’ rights and social equality. Meanwhile, extreme nationalists received messages that confirmed their xenophobic views about Muslims in the UK. This practice of simply telling groups of people what they wanted to hear was repeated again and again in the months leading up to the Brexit referendum. Similar practices were used in the United States before the 2016 presidential election.
Now, it is unclear whether or not Cambridge Analytica affected the election outcomes with their dishonest practices, but we now know something about the condition of democracy in the West. We cannot use the voting process to create sound policies or to elect reasonable leaders if our information is based on lies and deceit. The misinformation campaigns of Cambridge Analytica are a direct attack on democratic institutions and individual autonomy. If we do not act to save it, democracy will die.
The Root of the Problem
It is true that Cambridge Analytica acted unethically. It is also true that they subverted the democratic process by manipulating voters. However, let’s not pick up the pitchforks just yet. Take a moment to think about what allowed the consulting firm to conduct the misinformation campaign in the first place. If you have been paying attention, you will know it is all about the data.
Data is a bit like military intelligence. With the right intel, an army can plan around troop movements, capture key assets, and gain an advantage over the enemy. In politics, candidates can use data to fix the game in their favor. With data, politicians know what lies will resonate with each group of voters. This has massive implications for politics. Data, not the support of rational individuals, becomes the key to victory.
Property Rights to Save Democracy
If data collection is the key to political success, our representative government is a lie. That’s a bold statement, but follow my logic. Data requires a large sum of money and resources to acquire. Therefore, only elites can gather enough data to make a difference in the political arena. Now consider the fact that a single firm can gather enough data to change people’s perceptions of a candidate or policy. If we assume that people vote based on how they are manipulated, then the outcome of the election depends on the actions of whoever controls the data. This is an authoritarian concentration of power that ignores the desires of the average citizen.
Democracy is under attack, and zealous politicians and technology firms are gaining the upper hand. Is there anything we can do about it? Maybe.
From economics, we understand that resources with unclear ownership are often used in a way that is poor for society in the long-run. For example, natural resources in international waters are often overused because companies cannot regulate the supply without losing to competitors. Over time, the resources will run out. Let’s apply a similar lesson to data.
At best, individual property rights on data are uncertain. Since people do not have clearly defined property rights on their data, companies mine data for a slew of practical and nefarious purposes. To restore power to citizens in the democratic process, we must curb the ability of consulting firms to collect data for political purposes. Property rights can do this.
[Note: Property rights can be unclear in several situations. The most obvious situation is when the legal system simply does not consider a certain asset as property (like data). Property rights can also be unclear if people do not know about those rights. Citizens must be aware of the system or else their property rights will be breached.]
With data property rights, people would gain legal protections in the event that their data is stolen. If consent is not given by the owners of the information, data mining becomes theft. Since the stolen information is treated as individual property, the situation can be settled through the courts. This extends the rule of law to cyberspace. Clear legal protections make lawsuits a possibility. If consulting firms understand that their activities will affect their bottom line, they may think twice about engaging in nefarious political activities.
Making Data Rights a Reality
Data rights could be complimented by new contract rules that require firms to follow certain guidelines when requesting data. The contract between a company and a user should explicitly state how they will use the data. A simple statement about whether the purpose is political or commercial should be sufficient. Data mining firms should also be prohibited from sharing collected data with other firms since these organizations were not included in the original transaction. Audits can ensure that these practices are followed.
While this system of property rights works in theory, it may be difficult to implement due to the fact that data is not a physical object that you can see or feel. It is digital information that can be replicated, deleted, and stored in multiple locations. I won’t go much into this here, but some people believe that smart contracts on the blockchain can overcome these challenges.
There will be major challenges when making clear data rights a reality. Data rights could be a major blow to some of the largest technology and advertising corporations across the globe. Facebook’s business model is based on data collection and third-party advertising. They have some strong incentives to resist any efforts to restore data rights to individuals.
End user license agreements(EULAs) must be altered to prevent social media companies from claiming user data by default. Most social media services are ‘free’ because users agreed to forfeit their data privacy rights. This is the main challenge to data rights, so listen up. If we do not grant tech corporations our data by default through EULAs, an alternative system is required. Remember those smart contracts that I mentioned earlier? Those could be a solution. While they could grant privacy rights on a case-by-case basis based on the contracting rules we discussed, the blockchain would need to be scaled to a massive size.
A possible response to data decentralization efforts is that Facebook simply bans users that do not agree to unrestricted access to their data. I am sure that this would cause quite the media uproar, but given people’s addiction to social media, it could dissuade people from claiming their property rights. Back to square one.
There is Hope
If resistance from tech corporations prevents a complete decentralization of user data, we must start with pragmatic middle-ground solutions. A ban on data mining for political purposes is a reasonable first step in the fight against undemocratic organizations in our world. Education about the consequences of data rights should be the next priority. It’s a long shot, but growing demand for a platform that values that privacy and autonomy of each individual could transfer power from the data-hungry politicians to the rightful owners. Democracy still has a chance.