Conversations about privacy: Data ownership makes perfectly good sense in an open society

BLOG: Words are powerful. Used to justify specific ways of looking at the world and the nature of things, they have real consequences. I am currently looking at the societal conversation about privacy and the way in which these conversations inhibit us to think innovatively about society at large. Here’s another clash of discourses that impede us in our conversations about privacy: The conversation about “data ownership” in the digital age.


Data ownership vs openness

Some might claim that data ownership is problematic in a society based on openness, transparency and sharing (and this will very often be representatives from the data driven industries). Knowledge is shared and meaning created not by individuals but in community by all. I agree with the last part of this argument, but not with the part that claims that individual data ownership is in contrast to the open society.  There is a gigantic difference between ownership of personally identifiable data and ownership of socially constructed products, knowledge and ideas. And if you manage to separate these two types of data in the conversation about privacy, it makes perfectly good sense to claim individual ownership of data while still supporting open and shared knowledge.

Semiotics of privacy

Considering that we are ultimately dealing with the cultural consequences of an evolved medium, we can use semiotics, the theory of signs, to deconstruct this conversation. In this theory there are the signs that consist of a signified (the meaning) and the signifier (the object, the thing it represents). The signs will take form as icons, symbols or indexes.  Icons and symbols are representations. They are arbitrarily connected to the thing they represent, that is, they are separated from the object. But “indexes” are directly connected, almost physically, to their signifiers.

“One’s private life is not just pictured on Facebook. It is Facebook”

Now, apply this theory to a concrete example: young people’s use of social media. In 2013 I was part of a group researching young people’s perception of their privacy on social media. When asking one group of young people about the role of social media in their everyday lives, one boy said after thinking carefully for a while: “One’s private life is not just pictured on Facebook. It is Facebook”.  He was here acknowledging the fact that the medium Facebook is an extension of himself. The signifiers (e.g. images, likes etc.) that he use to present himself on his Facebook-profile are in his mind not separated as representations (they are not icons or symbols), but they are “indexes” – directly connected, almost in a physical sense, to him as a person. At the same time, the young people we talked with accepted the conditions prescribed by the service regarding its use of their personal data as it was considered a precondition for social participation. The alternative to not accepting these conditions, as they described it, would be not to be part of the social network of friends, not to be able to communicate, not to have an online identity.

The example of the young people’s conversations about their identity and privacy on social media, illustrate the consequences of an unclear societal conversation about privacy and data ownership.  These young people gradually accept loosing control over their “self” and bit by bit hand it over to external at times powerful institutions.

But this is and never has been a conversation about the knowledge and ideas we agree to share in an open society to develop alternative and disruptive societal forms and developments. It is about the gradual separation of the self from the self that we silently agree to in society at large.

So please, let’s nuance the conversation about privacy and data ownership.

“In the spectacle — the visual reflection of the ruling economic order — goals are nothing, development is everything. The spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.” – Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967

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