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

44 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2021 Last revised: 21 Dec 2022

See all articles by A. R. Greene

A. R. Greene

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) - Department of Philosophy; Department of Philosophy, University College London

S. J. Gilbert

University of Cambridge

Date Written: October 9, 2020

Abstract

When it comes to digital technology companies like Facebook, many people believe that more data leads to more power. It is suggested that the power these companies derive from their data is at best morally problematic, and at worst illegitimate. In this paper, we call into question the logic of “More data, more power” and suggest an alternative. We show that the existing models for characterizing data power, sovereign power and structural power, are inadequate, because they fail to accommodate something crucial: the fact that digital power is an empowering power. Companies like Facebook empower users to interact through versatile permission structures. Drawing on Searle’s theory of institutions and Hart’s theory of a legal system, we show how these permission structures facilitate the creation of new powers through a process of collective recognition and acceptance. This means we must ask how entities that provide us with such versatile—and thus unsteerable—means of empowerment can come to be legitimate. We offer a framework for digital legitimacy, Custodial Caution, that can assign responsibility for the patterns of empowerment 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 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3773898

Amanda Greene (Contact Author)

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) - Department of Philosophy ( email )

5631 South Hall
Santa Barbara, 93106
United States

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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