Towards a European Onlife Bill of Rights?

European citizens live in a 'fog of data' in the digital age. On the one hand, the digital age augments life by giving individuals direct access to information and networks that previously were limited by physical or practical barriers. On the other hand, as Broadbent and Lobet-Maris write in their chapter, the advent of the digital age has eroded barriers between individual and self in new and challenging ways. In practical terms, this raises concerns about data and identity theft. In more philosophical terms, this means significant challenges for people in negotiating a balance between different aspects of what it means to be human. In particular, this raises problems in terms of preserving different levels of privacy as the digital presence merges various identities—including student, teacher, worker, lover, child, sibling, parent, etc.—into a single visible entity. As Broadbent and Lobet-Maris write, “The individual is always visible and transparent, open to the view of all.” This creates enormous stress on individuals, in particular due to the lack of “unclear social norms and regulations.”

But does it have to be this way? Without getting bogged down in a philosophical discussion of the power of technology versus the will of Man, it is possible to set out tenets that can help individuals to negotiate the digital landscape. In some ways, these can parallel how society negotiates issues surrounding information in society in general. While the digital age brings challenges in new forms, the questions for humankind are essentially the same when we discuss defining the limits between the personal and the public. The problem is that these issues are not being discussed in a meaningful way. People are heavily engaged in commerce and entertainment in the online sphere, but there is a dearth of self-aware political discussion and mobilization about the very communication environment that dominates the 21st century. What we are left with is a lack of online cultural norms that can lead individuals astray if they continue to perceive the online sphere as free from norms—or even laws—that often have surprisingly harsh consequences. The way in which a false sense of security can lead people astray in a social sense is primarily anecdotal. One of the highest profile cases was that of former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner, who resigned his seat in 2011 after admitting to sending a sexually suggestive picture of himself via social networking[1]. Indeed, he even failed to learn from this experience and admitted to more of this behavior during his unsuccessful bid to run on the Democratic ticket for Mayor of New York City in 2013. While this incident underlines the ability of the internet to identify inappropriate behavior by public figures, it also shows how even a U.S. congressman—arguably a fairly intelligent and media savvy individual—would still cling to the idea that the internet was somehow exempt from surveillance, taste or appropriate behaviour. The troubling case of Weiner aside, U.S. politicians in particular have been found that any traditional tolerance of 'offline' behaviour has disappeared, with the online Drudge Report responsible for breaking the Monica Lewinsky/President Clinton scandal, the damage to Senator Trent Lott's career when a tape of his praise of a racist politician was broadcast online, and, more recently the release of a video tape during the 2012

U.S. Presidential elections in which Republican candidate Mitt Romney dismissed 47 % of Americans as “dependent on the government” and failing to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”3

If knowledgeable politicians are falling victim to the open nature of communication online, what about average citizens? There is rising evidence that online profiles are used to judge people, not merely socially but by key gatekeepers such as employers or university admission staff. A survey of more than 2,000 hiring managers and human resource professionals in the United States in 2012 found that 37 % of companies used social networking sites to research job candidates and another 11 % said they planned to start the practice [2]. About a third of the companies who researched candidates on social media found that the information caused them not to hire a candidate, including when they found provocative or inappropriate photos; information about the job candidate drinking or using drugs; or evidence that the candidate had poor communication skills. By the same token, almost as many managers (29 %) reported that they found something positive about job candidates in their social-media records (personality, background, professional image, good communication skills, good range of interests, creativity, positive comments from others). Interestingly, 15 % of the companies interviewed banned the practice of using social media to research job candidates, showing that there is a deep division in perceptions of online privacy even amongst U.S. employment managers.

Although universities in the United States are more likely to use social media in an attempt to attract students rather than to vet applicants to their programs, it is a two-way street, according to a survey by Kaplan Test Prep in 2012[3]. A survey of college admissions officers found that schools are “increasingly discovering information on Facebook and Google that negatively impact applicants' acceptance chances.” While the survey found only slight growth in the percentage of admissions officers who checked Google (27 %) and Facebook (26 %), the admissions officers were getting much better at finding bad things: The percentage of admissions officers who said they discovered something that “negatively impacted” an applicant's chances of getting into the school nearly tripled from 12 % in 2011 to 35 % in 2012. The admissions officers were unhappy with evidence of plagiarism, vulgarities in blogs, alcohol consumption in photos, things that made them “wonder” and “illegal activities,” according to the study. Indeed the comments about the finding from a Kaplan official reflect many of the concerns raised in the Onlife Manifesto: “Additionally, we're seeing a growing cultural ubiquity in social media use, plus a generation that's grown up with a very fluid sense of privacy norms. In the face of all these trends, the rise in discovery of digital dirty laundry is inevitable,” said Jeff Olson, Vice President of Data Science, Kaplan Test Prep. “With regard to college admissions, the traditional application—the essays, the letters of recommendation—represent the polished version of an applicant, while often what's found online is a rawer version of that applicant. Schools are philosophically divided on whether an applicant's digital trail is fair game, and the majority of admissions officers do not look beyond the submitted application, but our advice to students is to think first, Tweet later.” Echoing the problem of a lack of norms for employers, Kaplan's survey found that only 15 % of the college admissions offices surveyed even had rules regarding the checking of applicants' social networking content.

What emerges from these examples is a lack of consistent practices as to whether the internet is considered a public or private space by employers and admissions officers in the United States. Coupled with the confusion by individuals—and the continuing list of people who are reported in the mass media as 'caught out' via internet content despite significant evidence that nothing can be considered private in social media. While these examples are from the United States, the issues are global because countries all over the world lack strong laws or even norms in these areas. As a result, we need to consider how to articulate a set of norms and values for a new communication era—and these norms should be articulated rather than left to chance. It isn't useful or fair to leave negotiating the evolving digital landscape to the individual. In part, this is structural as corporations and governments have, so far, been more effective at harvesting information than protecting the rights of individuals. This is unsurprising given that the logic of both capitalism and state power dictate that the needs of corporations or the state would outweigh the needs of individual consumers or citizens. In addition—and this is a more subtle and less discussed point—individuals are vulnerable to a range of factors in the digital age that are linked to the very affordances of the digital world that people cherish and embrace. Broadbent and Lobet-Maris define this (in part) within the frame of attention. Attention has become 'monetized' so that we are constantly playing the dual role as attention-consumer and attention-attractor in order to maintain or promote our place in life. Yet, there is more to being human in the digital age than a sort of meter that monitors the amount of attention we can attract in a crowded digital sphere. We should not be reduced to our online rating, as measured through our number of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, position in the Googlearchy, etc. Individuals need to recognize that they should have agency and choice in the online sphere and that they should have structures in place to support this agency and choice.

  • [1] For background, see, (last accessed September 28, 2013) and er-caught-in-another-sex-scandal-wife-sticks-by-him (last accessed September 28, 2013).
  • [2] The survey was conducted online with the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of CareerBuilder ( with 2,303 hiring managers and human resource professionals between February 9 and March 2, 2012. Report online at careerbuilder. com/share/aboutus/pressreleasesdetail.aspx?id=pr691&sd=4%2F18%2F2012&ed=4%2F18% 2F2099 (last accessed September 28, 2013)
  • [3] For the 2012 survey, 350 admissions officers from the nation's top 500 colleges and universities— as compiled from U.S. News & World Report and Barron's—were polled by telephone between July and September 2012. See finds-that-college-admissions-officers-discovery-of-online-material-damaging-to-applicants- nearly-triples-in-a-year
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