Conducting a study on Data Ethics and Human Agency

Data Ethics: Renegotiating Human Agency in Industry Data Innovation

In the wake of a rapid technological development in which digitally collected, stored and procesed data have become defining factors in society, human and ethical dilemmas emerge. This study explores a social process that is taking place to negotiate global standards, roles, rights and responsibilities to create a new trust system to manage the risks of a data-saturated environment with an emphasis on ethics, human empowerment and agency.

The value of human agency and the way in which we in society interpret and deal with its enshrined implications are defined in contexts of technological, social, economic and cultural developments. The current technological evolution of datadriven, increasingly autonomous, machine to machine decisionmaking systems that permeate all areas of our everyday lives, urges us to revisit our understanding of what it means to be human and the role of human agency.

A current social critique is concerned with the increasing data asymmetry between individuals and the institutions that collect and process citizen data. It projects an image of a technological progress shaped by powerful industries, states, and even intelligent machines, and calls for the development of a human centric meta narrative to sculpt the development of alternative technologies, systems and legal frameworks. Concurrently, the recent major data leaks, hacks, surveillance scandals, media reports of political micro targeting and fake news campaigns have created a context of popular public scrutiny into the challenges of the big data era.

The “data ethical paradigm shift” (Hasselbalch, Tranberg, 2016) is taking the shape of a social movement, a cultural shift and a technological and legal development that increasingly places human agency at the center. In Europe a new data protection regulation (GDPR) which encourages the development of a privacy by default infrastructure is being implemented, across the globe countless Privacy by Design (Cavoukian, 2009) businesses and personal data management services are launched onto the market. This is an evolution based on a model of data innovation that does not just comply with the law, but foresees and attempt to manage the ethical implications that may spring from the “datafication” (Mai, 2016) of data processesing.

The study focuses on emerging discourse coalitions concerning data ethics in the big data era and their dominant discursive metaphors and rhetorics, as well as the processes of institutionalization of said discourses in policy, law, governance and data innovation practices: How do the different interest groups (industry, governments, intergovenmental and civil society organisations) and the individual people within these groups (designers, entrepreneurs, policymakers, experts) define data ethics and the role of human agency in the context of data innovation? How do their discourses influence the creation of shared frameworks for implementation? The ultimate aim of the study is to create transparency in the ongoing negotiation processes of data ethics.

The study is conducted at the department of Information Studies at University of Copenhagen.



Cavoukian, Ann (2009) Privacy by Design, Information & Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.

Hasselbalch, Gry; Tranberg, Pernille (2016) Data Ethics. The New Competitive Advantage,


Mai, Jens-Erik (2016) “Big Data Privacy: The Datafication of Personal Information”, The

Information Society, 32 (3), 192-199.