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The Data Industry is Draining its Own Fundament with no Sustainability

By Anna Lykke Lundholm-Andersen

Blog. In my first contribution to DataEthics I accused the data industry for having harvested our most precious information to an extend that only benefits the data industry since the commercial birth of the Internet 25 years ago. I discussed two reasons for us as citizens to accept that exploitation: One being that we have been ignorant to the functions of the industry the other being that we have been accustomed to silent acceptance because no real alternatives have been present. In this blog I’d like to suggest a sustainable alternative and a balance that I interpret as a necessary path for the industry as it will contribute to its long-term success and survival.

The core tenet is that you cannot keep draining your fundament if you want a sustainable business that lasts not only for a determinate period of time which you can profit from now, but one that will benefit the generations that are to come after you and contribute to long lasting success. It’s about understanding your contribution to the human species at a greater level than your quarterly turnovers. It’s about making an actual beneficial contribution to society in general and be honest about your intentions.

If we take a close look at the data industry they have not, so far, had a contributing starting point caretaking their own fundament. This being a starting point, in moral philosophical terms, a purely calculative and self interested starting point from the data industry’s behalf. This is in no way sustainable as it has an expiry date. When ‘consumers’ – that is citizens; human beings – realise that they’ve been exploited and manipulated, there will be a reaction. At the very least, disgust. And even if riots do not to occur, there will be unrecoverable distrust that will have its impact on how people act on the Internet. With its theoretical basis in panopticism (Bentham and later Foucault), citizens are told to accustom themselves to around-the-clock surveillance in the digital age and behave accordingly to not being aware when they are monitored or not.  This has an enormous impact on our notion of being free citizens (not necessarily at a conscious level). We have to realise that we are manipulated by an industry and that our freedom and democracy are at stake as the ones in charge of our data have disproportionate power and tell us directly how to be consumers, voters, and humans.

Building upon this the theory of the unravelling effect, coined by Scott Peppet, points to the fact that people in the data-driven economy are forced into giving up more of their privacy despite their unease as people with ‘conform’ data will have an initial interest in giving up data to the lords of the data industry because there is an immediate benefit, but forcing people not so well off to join in giving up personal data as well eventually or potentially discriminating them as a consequence of their lesser valuable data footprints or profiles as ‘waste’ as the industry calls them.

This is a concern that needs to be made. And not just at a cost beneficial level to companies, but as a concern that matters in regards to human rights.

That being said I’m not advocating that the industry should stop utilising data, because data can help us solve the most complex and simple challenges we face today. But it has to be done in a sustainable way, so that companies can gain from insights from their customers whilst caretaking their interests of being private human beings, not crossing the border or balance of draining their own fundament of existence.

The data industry needs to realise that they are draining their own fundament, and that they have to take pride in protecting their most valuable asset – their consumer’s privacy. Not being an act of altruism, but an act of sustainability: both caretaking their own interests equally and their existence in the sense that they realise that if they harvest without seeding, they will create their own extinction.

Anna Lykke Lundholm-Andersen recently graduated from the Dansih IT-University with a Master Thesis covering the data industry and privacy challenges. Today, she works with marketing & communications at Valcon.