29 Mar 2018

Cambridge Analytica and Europe's 'third way' to data privacy

The loss of freedom in the digital age seemed inevitable even before the Cambridge Analytica leak. But now, Europe can use the scandal as an opportunity to create an alternative to Silicon Valley monopolies and Chinese state surveillance.

Alexandra Borchardt
Alexandra Borchardt Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, United Kingdom
Cambridge Analytica and Europe's 'third way' to data privacy - NewsMavens
Alexander Nix, CEO, Cambridge Analytica, on Centre Stage during day three of Web Summit 2017 at Altice Arena in Lisbon.

Until recently, citizens appeared destined to live in one of two worlds:

The first is one of monopoly capitalism, where citizens are regarded as customers whose sole purpose is to generate data that can be converted into money. This is the world shaped by big American tech. It conveys the illusion of freedom because it's shaped by the private sector, and the package of surveillance and manipulation is wrapped attractively in huge amounts of customer convenience.

The other is one of state surveillance, where citizens are valued only if they serve a state sanctioned purpose. This is the Chinese version of the digital world and it doesn’t need pretensions of freedom. The Chinese government is clear about its goals when it monitors citizen behavior, ranks them by their compliance with the state’s agenda, and distributes privileges accordingly.

The problem with both of these worlds is that basic human rights are violated -- rights that should not be relinquished by ticking a box.

The root of the problem in both these worlds is monopoly. In world number one, conglomerates such as Facebook dominate search, social media, communication and shopping (Amazon is a powerful search engine). In world number two, the monopoly is state power, uncontested by political competition.

While monopolies and freedom don’t go well together, encouraging monopolies is one of digital technology’s basic functions.

Based on data gobbling algorithms, tech works towards converging and accumulating power, super efficiency and structures that are too big to fail. In contrast, freedom, like nature, allows for variety, independence, redundancy, inefficiency and choice.  

As a consequence, what needs to happen is the break-up of monopolies, as quite a few commentators (in The Guardian and The New York Times) have recently suggested.

This is where Europe comes in. The capacity to negotiate among an abundance of diverse interests, find compromises and push forward effective regulation would be an asset in a digital world that has promised freedom but has increasingly delivered control.

There is no better known way to promote freedom than through democracy.

Regulation, derived from public interest, is at democracy’s core because the interests of the weak can only be protected with rules that restrict the freedom of the powerful.

Silicon Valley used to be admired and envied. Many have wished to follow in its footsteps. But now is the time for more self-confidence on this side of the Atlantic. It is essential that Europe leads a third way between the American and the Chinese varieties of a digital world that currently doesn’t serve its inhabitants but only its proprietors.



Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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