More Data, More Power? Towards a Theory of Digital Legitimacy

Posted: 9 Mar 2021 Last revised: 6 Jul 2021

See all articles by A. R. Greene

A. R. Greene

Department of Philosophy, University College London

S. J. Gilbert

University of Cambridge

Date Written: October 9, 2020

Abstract

Companies like Facebook accumulate data on a scale that is historically unprecedented, and they have immense power. Are these two elements linked? Many people think that a logic of “More data, more power” offers a diagnosis of illegitimate digital power and a remedy for it, such as regulations that limit the collection of data. In this paper, we show why the logic of “More data, more power” misses the mark and, therefore, why many proposals for reforming companies like Facebook will not succeed. Having cleared the ground, we then investigate what would be a better way of thinking about digital power and its legitimacy. The old models of sovereign power and structural power, we argue, fail to accommodate a crucial and distinctive aspect of digital power, what we call empowering power. Companies like Facebook empower users of digital technology to interact on the basis of simple but versatile assignments of permissions, thereby facilitating the creation and distribution of new powers through a process of collective recognition and acceptance. Drawing on Searle’s theory of institutions and Hart’s theory of a legal system, we show that companies like Facebook confront us with a unique form of power. We ask how entities that provide us with such versatile means of empowerment and disempowerment can come to be legitimate. We develop and defend a framework for digital legitimacy, Custodial Caution, that assigns responsibility for the patterns of empowerment and disempowerment that are sustained by companies like Facebook.

Keywords: power, legitimacy, data ethics, AI ethics

Suggested Citation

Greene, Amanda and Gilbert, Samuel J., More Data, More Power? Towards a Theory of Digital Legitimacy (October 9, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3773898

Amanda Greene (Contact Author)

Department of Philosophy, University College London ( email )

Gower Street
London, WC1E 6BT
United Kingdom

Samuel J. Gilbert

University of Cambridge

Trinity Ln
Cambridge, CB2 1TN
United Kingdom

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