Digital Stewardship: An Introductory White Paper
Digital Stewardship: An Introductory White Paper Richard Whitt Oasis Foundation (July 28, 2020) Version 1.0
Posted: 23 Sep 2020
Date Written: July 28, 2020
Nearly half the people on the planet are now digital citizens — connected to each other via the Internet. Collectively consumers own some 3.5 billion smartphones, and have employed in our environment an additional 20-25 billion connected devices (such as smart IoT sensors, connected appliances, and wearables). All these technologies of digital surveillance and data extraction yield an astonishing amount of data every single day — by at least one count, some 2.2 quintillion bytes.
For the most part, however, users and many businesses alike do not sufficiently benefit from the production and use of all that data. Even though users do receive some “free” services in exchange for their personal data, the actual value to users is dwarfed by what they indirectly and often permanently give up in return. Plus, while some businesses directly benefit from all those data flows, most companies remain shut out of any meaningful opportunity to utilize personal data, especially in human-empowering ways.
The Web platforms — and their supporting ecosystem of data aggregators and brokers and advertisers and marketers — have prime opportunities to analyze and share and sell all that information. Often, these companies use insights gleaned from data sets based on our online behaviors to create profiles of us as users, and then try to manipulate or influence our actions, such as making us more likely to want certain products, buy services, support viewpoints, or vote for political candidates, based on what is best for their bottom line. The status quo is not in users’ best interests, as individual human beings or the collective interests of our communities and society at large.
Under the economics sketched out above, those who access and use personal data often lack any deep, ongoing relationship with users. It’s therefore unsurprising that their actions evidence no sense of care, of loyalty, of stewardship owed to people as actual clients. In too many ways, as a function of this habitual “flattening” of who users are as a data object, the person that we are when online has less autonomy and agency — freedom of thought and action — than the person we are when we are offline. Users often lack any legitimate standing with online companies — the opportunity to question or challenge or oppose their actions regarding the collection and uses of personal data. Nor do these companies embrace the fiduciary obligations of loyalty and care that people experience on a daily basis -- with lawyers, doctors, librarians, and many more professionals.2 Users online also lack the ability to remain anonymous, as is possible in many everyday retail settings. In essence, people have fewer “digital” rights than they have “analog” rights.
In real life, people can be customers, and clients, and patrons to trusted businesses. On the Web, though, people are mostly just “users,” often lacking legitimate relationships to online entities, especially third-party data brokers. One’s data seemingly is everywhere, available to anyone, through platform companies, third-party brokers, or hacks and breaches. In everyday life, people can rely on basic human trust and accountability to bolster their relationships; in websites and apps, however, people are merely part of someone else’s transaction, or a step on the path between fungible value exchanges.
The time is ripe to challenge, and reverse course on, this growing inequality. Modern technologies should actually empower human beings, not reduce them. This means that users should have fundamental rights to control access to their personal data — no less than what people typically can control in their everyday life. All of us deserve an Internet where our digital rights on the Web are no less than our analog rights in the rest of life. Or, put another way:
Digital rights >= Analog rights
The proposal here is to adopt a new kind of stewardship ethos for the Web. Technology systems can and should be grounded in human priorities – starting first with the actual person. There are three specific elements that together create this new model of stewardship.
The computational systems amount to Tech, the ecosystem of stakeholders is the Players, and the ethos of stewardship is the Rules.
Tech (digital) + Players (ecosystems) + Rules (stewardship)
● Digital: The countless computational systems being built and deployed throughout society. These systems combine data, plus algorithms, plus interfaces.
● Ecosystems: The mix of technologies, networks, platforms, communities, and related social/political/market systems – and the human beings behind all of it.
● Stewardship: An ethics-informed stance, premised on fostering a certain caring, respectful, and beneficent attitude, towards the ordinary people affected by digital ecosystems.
A holistic, systemic perspective encompasses all three elements.
This paper explores the opportunity to create and inhabit a new world of digital stewardship. The inspiration comes from environmental stewardship, where people willingly take on obligations to protect the health, resilience, and diversity of the flora and fauna that comprise the natural world.
Here, we issue a call for end users — individuals, companies, non-profits, policymakers — to endorse the concept of digital stewardship, and work together to create a more human-empowering online ecosystem. In particular:
Individuals: demand more autonomy and agency from the companies who handle your data.
Companies: establish clear guidelines for promoting the best interests of ordinary users.
Technologists: develop technologies that give ordinary users greater control over their data.
Entrepreneurs: launch products and services that give greater control over data to ordinary users.
Policymakers:ask tough questions about why today’s Internet lacks human autonomy and agency, and what we can do to change the situation.
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