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On 22nd January the Forum on Geopolitics (POLIS) at the University of Cambridge hosted ‘A Nightmare Scenario: Technology and Democracy’, a lecture that addressed the effects technology could have on the functioning of contemporary democracy. Each of the speakers shared with the public their own nightmares – dystopian scenarios that democratic societies may face – as technologies play an ever-central role in every aspect of our lives.

The Lecture was chaired by Charles Arthur, a freelance Tech Journalist and former technology editor at The Guardian. The panel’s speakers included: Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch; John Naughton, Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at the Open University and Director of the Press Fellowship Programme at Wolfson College; and the technology columnist of The Observer, David Runciman, Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Studies and Dr. Nóra Ni Loideain, ILPC’s Director.

Dr Nóra Ni Loideain’s speech concentrated on discussions around the value of data in improving society’s wellbeing and individuals’ living conditions. Her speech started off with a response to a recent article written by musician and entrepreneur will.i.am’s on Data as Property (DaP) in The Economist. According to the artist, who is part of the Global AI Committee at the World Economic Forum, the Data Protection should be regarded to as an inalienable human right, and each individual should hold the fundamental liberty to retain and share data upon giving informed consent. In will.i.am’s views, the value of data lies in its economic potential, and therefore individuals should be fairly compensated for it. Data as Property would help to strike a balance between the multi-billion businesses of tech giants – ‘data monarchs’ – and the free labour that we perform online and that generates boundless amounts of data.

Dr Nóra Ni Loideain expressed her agreement with the concept of Data Protection as an inalienable human right, but her views departed from the artist’s endorsement of the concept of Data as Property owned solely by an individual. If personal data were to be treated as such, and considered only in terms exchange of financial compensation without considering the implications for wider society or other individuals affected by the sharing/revealing of this data (e.g. genomic data), significant harms would result to both individuals and wider society. On this path, society could regress to a stage in which human activity, and ultimately human beings, would be considered solely as commodities, subject to exploitation and valuable only where it generates financial revenue.

The concept of Data as Property, as a matter of fact, ignores centuries of legal history that defines Data Protection: the concept goes well beyond that of Data Privacy and is underpinned by the fundamental principles of dignity and liberty. Data Protection also guarantees the protection of other inalienable human rights key to the functioning of a democratic society, such as freedom of expression, the right to equality, and the right to non-discrimination measures.

As seductive as it sounds, the idea of DaP as outlined by will.i.am, constitutes a significant threat to civil liberties of the right to access informationthe freedom of information and the freedom of expression. Under today’s conditions, the so-called ‘data monarchs’ exert crucial influence on these civil liberties by gathering and mining data that creates the invisible environment in which our lives unfold. Considering the ever-increasing convergence of public and private sectors, personal data should rather be combined and aggregated in a way that creates common interest-oriented data infrastructures that can significantly improve the efficiency and sustainability of communities and societies.

Dr Nóra Ni Loideain called for closer scrutiny and enforcement of Data Privacy and Data Protection safeguards that consider the intersection of the public and the private sector (eg such as in the area of the private sector’s role in predictive policing), and pointed out that enhanced accountability and access to all data processing stages is needed to ensure that regulatory frameworks be developed fairly and transparently, bearing in mind the impact that data has on many levels of human lives.

Another critique that Dr Nóra Ni Loideain made of will.i.am’s statements is that the vision of Data as Property does not challenge the status quo in terms of the current challenges facing how Data Protection and Privacy are currently and how should they should be regulated in future. The artist’s account, in fact, fails to recognize that governmentscommunitiesacademia and civil society alike should all play a central role in designing and evaluating fair and transparent regulatory frameworks, so as to set an agenda that is attentive of the critical value of data in today’s society. In other words, this is not a conversation to be had solely between the individual and industry. Such reform must also take into account the existing imbalance in power dynamics between individuals and organisations that arises in many current cases of gathering and sharing of personal data.

Dr Nóra Ni Loideain concluded her lecture by delineating her own nightmare scenario: a context that would condone the perpetration of sterile measures whereby any use of personal data for public benefit and inalienable human rights and civil liberties are swept aside, reinforced by a culture of profit-driven Data Protection and Data Privacy policies. In this scenario, compliance, enforcement and oversight of the relevant legal frameworks would be paper-based – far from meaningful or legible and amount to no more than a rubber stamp.


If you have attended the event and are in possession of pictures of the panel, please do get in touch with maddalena.esposito@sas.ac.uk for inclusion to this blog post.