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Information totalitarianism

RIGHT OF SELF-GOVERNMENT? / The companies behind platforms, smartphones and the Internet of Things continuously track all our movements. With a digital footprint, one can determine a person's access to credit, transportation, social services or health care. We lose our individual freedom and autonomy.


The revolution within information Technology has since the 1980s changed how we live. The cost of collecting, storing and sharing information has been reduced. And we got the internet. And we were told that by creating new opportunities for social, political and economic participation, we should IT revolution Strengthen individual independence and social inclusion.

But 40 years later, there is a small group of powerful companies that can celebrate, and not most people. The state and a handful of technology companies have accumulated large amounts of data and turned it into an instrument for surveillance og control – solely for political and economic gain.

There is plenty of raw data there

The information technology revolution confirms the old mouth that the revolution eats its children. But the relative fragility of information control means that it is still possible to correct past mistakes and exploit the positive potential of the digital era. To do so, we must clear a misunderstanding of the nature of information: it is not a resource, but a means of total control, especially in the hands of concentrated power.

Data is often compared to gold and oil, as if information is just another resource that can be privately owned and utilized for financial gain. But data differs from ordinary resources. There is plenty of raw data, there is no competition there. It is a resource that does not follow the rules of scarcity, and therefore has no inherent economic value. Thus, there is no other reason to collect lots of data than to have control over the same individuals who produced them.

We are already in Big Tech and the era of surveillance states.

Unfortunately, individual "information producers" cannot prevent others from accessing "their" data, at least not for the time being. Without digital keys that can prevent the companies behind platforms, smartphones and Internet of Things (IoT) from continuously tracking all our movements, it is impossible to prevent others from exploiting the information we leave behind. We are asked to trust companies like Apple. But ultimately, there is nothing users can do if Apple chooses to break their promises – they won't even know.

Location information every second

The EU Privacy Regulation of 2018 has been hailed as a model for privacy protection, and is now being copied by other jurisdictions, including California and Brazil. The main purpose of the Privacy Regulation is to require consent for the collection of "personal" information, that is, all information that can be used to identify an individual. However, the difference between personal information subject to privacy regulations and industrial information (from IoT) that is accessible to everyone is not always clear.

Mobile phones send out "impersonal" location information every second.

What appears to be impersonal information can often be combined with other information to identify an individual who has left a digital footprint. A dig from The New York Times recently revealed that cell phones send out "impersonal" location information every second. These signals can be used to track the path an individual takes to and from work. With that information, private or state actors can easily connect that person to an address and find her identity. And with the proliferation of face recognition software, there will no longer be a pretext for distinguishing an individual from its action.

China and the Netherlands

China's new "social credit" system illustrates the potential of using information as an instrument of repression. In a world where every act leaves a digital footprint that can be used to determine a person's access to credit, transportation, social services or health care, the very concept of individual freedom and autonomy disappears, and with it the basis for a democratic system of government.

The Chinese government's pursuit of full control is not unique. Even in the Netherlands, the court had to crack down on the government's "indication of systemic risk" program because it violated fundamental human rights – a verdict that of course would have been unthinkable in China and many other countries. After collecting behavioral data on poor and other recipients of social assistance, the Dutch government had installed an algorithm to identify individuals most likely to perform social security fraud in the future.

To acknowledge that information is not a resource, but an instrument of control, means that managing it, developing consumer ownership rights, or using antitrust laws to restore competition must also address the real issue: how to prevent information governance. A temporary solution may be to shut down existing businesses, but that is not the ultimate goal. In general, there is no reason why anyone should collect and store information about others beyond what is necessary to maintain security and security – or to ensure that platforms designed for users work properly.

One could argue that it is too late to redo what has already been done.

Common property

The ability to collect and store information does not justify the control mentioned above. For states, restraint should be their default position, in line with legislative and international protection of fundamental human rights. Many of the major technology companies treat the information the same way Roman law treated wild animals: no one owns them (res nullius), therefore anyone can capture them and claim them as their personal property. But Roman law also contained a self-limitation: There is something called common property (res communis) – what nobody should be able to seize.

One can argue that it is too late to redo what has already been done. We are already in Big tech # and the age of the monitoring states. But information management depends on a continuous flow of new information. While the past cannot be changed, the future is wild.

In order to protect individual autonomy, data harvesting and technology that gives information producers full control must be prohibited. The goal of the digital revolution should be to protect our freedom, not to strengthen surveillance.

Translated by Emma Bakkevik.

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