OPINION: Is It Time for An Ethical Data Standard?

Ethical Data Standard: Dele Atanda The Internet Foundation

Proposing an ethical, self-determinate approach to data ownership, Dele Atanda, founder of The Internet Foundation, argues that cultural and legislative changes which recognise data as personal property are needed.

The news of the reported data harvesting by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica has raised numerous concerns surrounding the security of personal data. Following this it raises the question, do we need to introduce an ethical data standard?

The internet has evolved from an early broadcast medium to a Web 2.0 medium where people have been empowered to become broadcasters themselves and share their views with each other, businesses and the world. Social media is much bigger than Facebook (big as it is) and in many senses, the internet itself has evolved into a social medium.

Many of the utilities in properties like Facebook – such as sharing, liking, commenting, rating, etc – have now become ubiquitous across the internet. As the internet increasingly becomes the primary medium for expression, information sharing and ideation, the idea of social networks as public utilities becomes more feasible.

A Fundamental Human Right

One could argue that the internet is becoming the primary medium of free speech, an extension of the United Nations’ 2011 declaration that internet access is a human right protected by international law as indeed is free speech. So, if the social internet has become a primary vehicle for free speech then it is not absurd to propose that it be provided as a public utility.

However, important as this is, perhaps a more important issue is that in a medium where expression and intimate thought-sharing can so easily be broadcast to many; where the profound insights which can be derived from accessing such information can be equally used to manipulate and exploit people, it is important to have ethical guidelines that preserve people’s natural rights to individuality and free choices, free from coercion and manipulation.

It’s often touted that data is the new oil, the natural resource of the twenty-first century. Fuelled by huge commercial returns, an extreme form of surveillance capitalism is emerging whereby tracking in a predatory, invasive and intrusive manner is used to acquire vast amounts of customer data in the most nefarious of ways.

This is the Dirty Data Economy, analogous to the Dirty Energy Economy, where the social and environmental harm caused by the practice of amassing vast oceans of personal data through ethically questionable means, without people’s knowledge or consent and locking it away inside digital fiefdoms that corral, exploit and manipulate people through their information is greater than the business or social benefit it generates.

Unfortunately, Facebook has been far too active in exploiting this economy, where it seems it uses public outcries on its nonconsenual uses of data, pushing the boundaries of permission, consent and privacy, as PR exercises to show off its surveillance and social engineering capabilities.

Emotional Manipulation

In 2014 Facebook released a report on how they were able to demonstrate emotional contagion through positive and negative calibrations of people’s news feeds. Is it really any surprise that two years later Cambridge Analytica were pretty much using this capability to influence electorates?

What is needed now is a Clean Data Economy underpinned by principles of individual data privacy, ownership and consent. The Clean Data Economy is analogous to the Clean Energy Economy where data can be used as a powerful force for good. At the heart of this economy is the principle of personal data as personal property. When we think of personal data as personal property, like money or other possessions, then the ethics of how we should handle it become much more straightforward.

Data Ethics ISO

TheInternet.Foundation is developing an Ethical Data Standard in partnership with the British Standard Institute to precisely codify, self-regulate and provide guidance on how to ethically use personal data in commerce as an ISO International Standard.

Self-regulation is one part of it and technology is the other. We are using cryptography and blockchain technologies to create a protocol – the mPod Protocol, that allows sealed data objects to be created by people and consensually accessed through tokens in marketplaces.

By using encryption and tokens, we can provide a data sharing model that is mutually beneficial for data owners and data seekers alike. Information can be protected and used in a universal and ethical standards-based manner. People can choose how much exposure they are comfortable with and who they wish to share certain information with, based on clear transparent value exchanges.

As our data is so valuable and personal, we should be able to determine who has access to it, take part in its value exchange and earn equity from transactions should we so wish. By introducing the Clean Data framework, no one can exploit your personal information or use it without full transparency on what they wish to do with it and your clear consent for it to be used in this way.

Clean Data enables us to clean up the swamp the web is at risk of becoming today.

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