Big data organisations have given us a “crisis of confidence”

People are being manipulated by organisations that collect vast amounts of personal data, according to a report by the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS).

Giovanni Butarelli, who heads the independent institution, acknowledged the benefits of being able to store and analyse huge volumes of data, but warned that current data collection practices have led to a “crisis of confidence”, with individuals becoming reluctant to share personal data with organisations that they suspect will use the information unscrupulously.

Butarelli singles out data harvesting (in which a script extracts data from websites and uses it for other purposes), a practice that organisations have used to tailor what people see online. Whereas this was once an asset, Butarelli says that it’s allowed a handful of “gatekeepers” to control the information we see and promote ‘fake news’.


“Digital flattening”

‘Fake news’ isn’t new. TV and print journalism have always targeted certain demographics, and many channels and newspapers are renowned for their political leanings. However, the competition within those forms of journalism has always been transparent. Individuals have to pick the newspaper or magazine they want from a large selection, or turn to their desired TV station. They know which sources they are rejecting, and are free to seek others.

With the Internet – particularly sites that have a news hub (such as Facebook’s news feed) – individuals are given a false sense of control. They decide whether or not to click a news item, but their options are limited based on predetermined decisions of big data organisations.

This has created “a digital flattening of expression”, to use a term coined by Jaron Lanier, where content is separated from its source, and readers grow increasingly unfamiliar with certain sites’ political or ideological biases. Or, more specifically, everything they read has the same prejudice, meaning those opinions become accepted as the norm.

Recent data breach scandals have exposed the machinations of ‘fake news’ to some extent, but the term is still mired in its own meta-politics; when someone calls news ‘fake’, they generally mean ‘I disagree with this’. But political bias is only part of the issue. The bigger problem is the way aggregators provide these sources. They don’t make it clear that they are using people’s personal data to tailor news items for them, so many people felt betrayed when the extent to which this happens was revealed. The EDPS fears that “people’s willingness to [freely] and honestly express themselves has been eroded” as a result, and they might soon no longer share information.

How can trust be restored? Butarelli said:

The solution is to be found beyond content management and transparency, though they may help where appropriate. What we also need is better enforcement of the rules on data processing, especially sensitive information like on health, political and religious views, and accountability. Antitrust and merger control – with the support of DPAs – has a central role in addressing structural issues of concentrated markets.

But with the threat posed to social norms and democracy we now need to expand collaboration to include electoral regulators and audio visial [sic] media regulators. We also have to change the incentives in the market. That is why new ePrivacy rules are essential.

The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) could also prove vital in regaining people’s trust. The GDPR gives organisations strict requirements for processing and protecting personal data, and strengthens individuals’ rights concerning their information.


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