It is an undeniable fact that big data is all around us. Whenever we use the internet, call a taxi, or purchase with credit cards, big data is at work, logging our activities into amorphous balls of anonymous bytes, helping companies better target their products, maximize profits, and predict future trends. It’s true that consumers sometimes benefit from these outcomes, but dare I ask: What if I don’t want to?
The term often used to describe this dilemma is “data dignity.” Data dignity is decidedly different from data privacy. Whereas privacy is the process in which our anonymity is protected, data dignity has to do with having a choice about how our anonymous data is used. The truth is we usually don’t have a choice: either about what gets used or how. When I surf the internet, all my website visits are tracked incessantly and that information is sent to advertisement companies so they can assemble lists of my interests and target ads based on them. Even though these lists are constructed anonymously, they are still unique to me, linked to whatever device I was using.
From an ethical perspective, data dignity is about deciding the boundaries of personal space. When I turn on my phone and check messages on an app, who owns that space? At the moment, the resounding answer is that the app company does. They can place any ads or content they want and I have little choice about what I see. Same is true for my activities within the app. Even if I am just playing a game, all the information about my progress is fed into algorithms so the company can offer me things to buy: things like items, lootboxes, or tokens. Notice how this process is very different from how we treat physical space: When placing ads on a bus or the side of a road, there are regulations and public oversight governing its content. Not the case for space on my phone.
From an economic perspective, data dignity also connects with the idea of a data dividend. If companies are using my activities to make more money, why shouldn’t I also receive some of it? That’s what a data dividend is, a share of profit. Let’s say you are a daily commuter who uses an app to map your driving. What you probably don’t know is that app is constantly monitoring you as you drive. This data is being fed into an algorithm that predicts traffic patterns and that data is, in turn, sold to the government and infrastructure companies when they build roads, buildings, or public transportation. This data is regularly worth tens of millions of dollars and yet the people who actually do the tire work to generate it get nothing.
In the recent US presidential debates, one of the candidates, Andrew Yang, has finally begun raising some of these issues. His voice, unfortunately, is still one of very few. In Korea, one of the most digitized countries in the world, there is hardly any mention of data dignity. Despite the economic outlook remaining relatively poor for the foreseeable future and the incomes of lower- and middle-class citizens strapped tight, large tech companies continue to bask in record earnings, many of them driven and guided by the data you and I give them for free. Imagine how nice it would be if one of them turned benevolent and started thinking about these issues in a more transparent manner, giving back to its users in some way, no matter how insignificant. I know, I’m such a dreamer.
Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and the associate director of the Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai. He conducts research on a wide range of topics including East Asian culture and maritime trade. -- Ed.