A Digital 'Bill of Rights'
How can we articulate these thoughts into principles for policy? The following ideas were developed during the Onlife meetings from discussions at the first workshops. Much of the work of the Onlife Manifesto is dedicated to identifying core issues; while certainly not encyclopedic the six points below are an attempt to identify the core issues. In addition, they resonate with a range of declarations developed regarding rights and the online sphere as listed in Table 1.
1. Everyone has the right to privacy.
When attention is monetized through the constant harvesting of online personal activity and data, we lose privacy (Cohen 2012; Solove 2004). When states chose to monitor citizens in the online sphere, we lose privacy. When technology fails to keep its promise of anonymity, we lose privacy (Ohm 2009). The ongoing argument to support the harvesting of personal data has been that it is a contract between the internet-service provider and the individual, i.e. if you use Google or Facebook, you are allowing your data to be tracked in order to use the service. States use a variety of arguments to support harvesting online information (either openly or covertly), ranging from a need to better respond to citizens to anti-terrorism efforts. There are two fundamental problems with this 'contract.' First, there is evidence that ISPs as well as governments have not been clear with consumers or citizens about the way in which the data is tracked and used, creating a digital profile for users. It might be more useful to think of this as a sort of digital 'tattoo' or what Solove (2004) called a “digital dossier” because of its permanence. Secondly, there is a widespread lack of individual awareness of how the private becomes permanently public in the digital age, which is reflected in the way in which people post information, images, video, etc. that are damaging to themselves and others. In this way, individuals create permanent profiles of themselves that they cannot delete (or refute).
There is a slightly more compelling argument that the state should be able to react to obvious threats to state security that are visible in the online sphere. However, as a U.S. Supreme Court justice once said, freedom of speech should only end when you stand up and yell 'fire' in a crowded theatre, i.e. you should only lose the right to free discourse if you are creating a clear and present danger.6 There should be a defined limit or test for what is state security risk and what is acceptable radicalized discourse in the online sphere. While this is a part of a wider debate about the state, the public and information in the post 9/11 world, the harvesting of online data so radically realigns the power relationship between the harvester and the subjects that this debate becomes much more pressing and urgent. It also would appear that governments lack the self-restraint not to monitor a wide swathe of citizens in the name of national security. The revelation in June 2013 that the National Security Agency in the United States was tracking huge tranches of mobile phone records drew attention and debate from Americans about government surveillance, but the more critical issue of the potential to track citizen behavior via the online sphere at a far more granular level still does not seem to be understood by citizens.
2. Individuals own their own data.
This is a bold statement, in that the business model of many ISPs is based on the harvesting and sale of data to advertisers. This is not to suggest that ISPs could be stopped from collecting individual data, but the idea of the right to one's data should be considerably strengthened. While many people easily recognize that information that they enter into a computer (such as names, dates of birth, bank account numbers) is data that needs to be protected, there is far less awareness of the more subtle and personalized data patterns, essentially digital fingerprints, that are created by individuals in their daily internet interactions (particularly search behaviour). There can be two views here that are compatible within the idea that individuals own their own data and the public own public data. In a cooperative move with ISPs, the data can be shared. For example, Google makes public a great deal of its aggregate data via Google Analytics in an attempt to show the value of search data in informing economic, social and political life. However, Google does not make its data archive linked to individuals public unless forced to do so by national laws—and as shown by its withdrawal from China, Google will resist this where possible. (However, the NSA scandal suggests that Google may be compelled to share data on individuals more frequently than they are able to report.) In a more pro-active approach, society can choose to block or severely limit the way in which individuals are monitored by ISPs. European states have moved in this direction recently by requiring ISPs to inform users about cookies and having users 'opt in' instead of 'opt out'. The notion of informed consent imposed by law is an important and useful direction.
3. Everyone has a right to a personal life.
This is linked to the issue of privacy as discussed above, but it is somewhat different. No one should have to friend on line a teacher, student, co-worker, client, etc. There should be clear delineation between what is an online business/ education tool and what is a social/personal tool. Part of this is an issue of ISP design. Facebook, created by U.S. college students, is based on the American ideal of networking in which personal and professional relationships are encouraged to merge. However, as has so often been the case with online interfaces, the sheer scale and scope of Facebook has intensified this relationship in unhelpful ways (coupled with the toxic need for attention that drives many people to compulsively post minute information about their personal lives on line). It has created the 'perfect storm' to erode the boundaries between the personal and professional.
4. No one should have to switch off completely to protect himself or herself.
Here the argument (particularly from the older generation) is that one can simply opt out of social networking or the online sphere in general. This is almost impossible for much of the population. For example, students clearly use social networking to communicate with their peers at school and manage relationships. The level of enthusiasm for it varies, but it is not really optional. A college student who is not on Facebook (or the current dominant social network in his or her environment) would be socially and academically isolated, missing the communication and even links to critical information for study. Broadbent and Lobet-Maris also are correct to point out that a new digital divide emerges when management can remain online throughout a working day and workers cannot. This is the new type of digital divide that warrants attention and concern. The issue of the timing and control of access should be considered in more depth.
5. Switching off sometimes should be encouraged—and cultivated.
As noted in meetings of the Onlife project, the internet has become a sort of external brain for a lot of people. It has the ability to stimulate and delight through access to information and people, supporting us in our quest to be better informed as well as through enriching relationships. However, this is where the point made about attention by Broadbent and Lobet-Maris is so important. We need to cultivate the ability to pay attention and concentrate, as it is becoming a lost art. This type of focused attention is still necessary, in particular for learning and close relationships. Perhaps it is not so much about 'switching off' as withdrawing from the public to private, as discussed in earlier points.
6. There should be 'third spaces' that are owned and regulated by the European public. Again, here we have an issue in which the U.S. model of communication has come to dominate in Europe and it does not really fit. In particular, Facebook operates under the U.S. libertarian system, in which there is little distinction among the commercial, the private and the state in terms of information production and dissemination. Americans reject the notion of the state as the instrument of social and political change; rather, they view the state as the handmaiden of the wishes of the public. While there is a lot of evidence that the U.S. state is bigger, more powerful and more redistributive than the common American believes it to be, it also means that Americans are quite comfortable with the fusion of commercial and political power in the information sphere. The same is not true of Europeans. European countries have created either public or state broadcasting systems, as well as tend to have a greater emphasis on the state's role in inculcating public debate. This means that U.S.-designed internet interfaces and norms of data openness are not appropriate. It suggests that European states and the European Union itself need to be more pro-active in creating a public 'agora' in which citizens can debate and discuss political ideas in a less polarized way, as well as in a way that is more supportive of European democracy at the national or Union level.
Here, one could reflect on some evidence surrounding political debate, parties and elections in the United States. As Richard Davis (2009) points out in his study of U.S. political blogs, influential blogs in the United States are partisan. They reflect the divide between Democrats and Republican, who are typically more at odds over social values than economic issues. Despite this polarity—or perhaps because of it—blogs are a particularly vibrant part of the U.S. news discussion, often quoted or breaking political stories in their own right. Online new sources have become popular, not just as elite influencers, but as news outlets themselves. Thus, the United States has more developed, if at times polarized, online political discourse than European countries such as the United Kingdom. The question remains whether this is one of culture or—as Scott Wright would argue—one of design. Wright, who has studied the effect of different online formats on the nature of discussion, argues that online deliberation can be 'engineered' by particular web interfaces (2012). Left to chance or merely the market, these deliberative spaces do not arise. This is in part because political interaction and discussion form only a very small part of what people do on line. However, Wright's research has found that when given opportunity and motivation, people are ready and willing to discuss political issues and mobilize on line in the United Kingdom.
The idea of an engineered online 'agora' is particularly important during a period of crisis. My own research and that of others has found that online discussion becomes more intense—and much more closely linked to offline manifestations ranging from elections to protests—in times of political crisis (Khamis and Vaughn 2012; Lewiński and Mohammed 2012; Oates 2013). As the Euro crisis comes to a head in Europe, where is the common space for Europeans—as opposed to citizens of individual nations—to discuss and debate these issues in a rational, informed manner? At an even more fundamental level, where is the common space in which authoritative information about debt, taxation, fairness, rules and consequences can be exchanged among a European public? The current coverage of the Euro crisis is, unsurprisingly, framed through the lens of national media. As a result, the public are woefully uninformed—and even misinformed—about the information and issues at stake. As in any disputed, nationalistic information sphere (reflect on audience issues in Northern Ireland or the former Yugoslavia), there is no real accepted reality. As a result, it is enormously difficult to discuss the issue in a 'European' way. The internet could provide such common space, yet does not at this time.