"Owning your data" will not save you from data capitalism

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/12/17/sui-generis-regimes.html

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It seems obvious to say it but the problem originates from people wanting their internet resources for free. Naturally that means internet companies have to support themselves through advertising. With all that information about who you associate with, what you search for, and where you go, it’s a gold mine for advertisers who are looking to bring attention to their products to a person just like you. Even if you scrub yourself off major internet sites, they still run advertising profiles on you based on what the people you know say about you.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be some sort of reworking of the internet’s best practices, but the problem has always been one of keeping the lights on at the businesses you expect to use for free.

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Tisney proposes three starting rules: “The right of the people to be secure against unreasonable surveillance shall not be violated”; “No person shall have his or her behavior surreptitiously manipulated”; and “No person shall be unfairly discriminated against on the basis of data.”

These rules, and the sentiment behind them about the category error of “data capitalism” as a default, are solid and valid. However, they can work alongside a core concept (also enabled by technology and law) that an individual’s personal data belongs to him first and foremost, and is hers to share under terms that she defines.

In the absence of nation-states and large corporations that, for the most part, are reluctant to implement Tisney’s rules, there’s no real loss in starting there with the understanding that the end-game is creating a situation that forces better privacy and anti-surveillance laws and a Bill of Data Rights.

The place to start in that regard is with decentralised and federated platforms and services that give users the option to own their own data, with strong crypto, with blockchain ledgers and smart contract permission systems – all based on open-source software. At least one liberal democratic nation-state, Estonia, has followed on such technologies by enshrining their design principles into law.


There may be a cost to thinking of personal information as a kind of property. Not to be too hyperbolic in my comparison, but Europeans essentially swindled indigenous north americans out of huge swaths of land by getting them to agree to treaties that treated land as property. For people who didn’t think of land as property, these agreement essentially made no sense.

I think one of the points being made is that when you treat personal information as property, you are setting yourself up to be swindled out of it by people with more legal savvy than you have in a system that doesn’t conform to any of your intuitions about how your personal information works.


I agree in principle and in the sense that the propertarian concept is further normalised. None-the-less, the current facts on the ground are that corporations do think of personal information that way and that most nation-states are doing nothing to change that. The technologies I mentioned above that enable personal ownership of data, while not being magical solutions in and of themselves, do provide us with tools to start fighting back.



This does not get talked about enough. People love to point to TOS or say, “well, if you don’t like it, don’t use it.” Meanwhile universities, workplaces, and anyone you want to do business with has pretty much bought into the infrastructure (because that’s what this stuff becomes–just because Snapchat isn’t critical, it doesn’t mean Dropbox and Office 365 aren’t).

I run Linux, and I use FOSS, but about 75% of the software I use at work doesn’t run on FOSS. Even if it did, it doesn’t solve the fact that I don’t have the downtime and resources to run my own servers for email and cloud storage. I also don’t have the time to read every boilerplate set in front of me. I just have to assume that I’m not selling my soul and move on from there.


Yeah, this is exactly what I like about the idea that’s being proposed here. I don’t have to worry that a boilerplate contract sells myself into slavery or gives up my first born because those things would never be legally binding - people are not property. If my personal information were not property, but I had rights to it that even I wasn’t able to sell or give away, then I could largely ignore whatever stupid stuff they wrote down.


This! ^

Neoliberalism tries to turn everything into private property. All the things we have relationships with - the air you breathe, the water you drink, the ideas you have, the place you live - it wants them to become your property. But it doesn’t do this so that you can have more power over your world. You already have power over those things, because you’re the one with a relationship to them. But the economy is not involved in that relationship. Neoliberalism is about reworking those relationships to include the economy, because capitalists hate it when anything is beyond the reach of their money.

Have more water than you need? Neoliberalism won’t rest until it’s possible for you to sell that water to the highest bidder. Have a cool idea? Neoliberalism insists that it be possible for someone to buy your idea and keep it to themselves. Mind you, neoliberals would never “steal” your water or your idea, they’ll just structure the economy such that it’s your best option to give them what they want.

So if you’re a capitalist, you want everything to be ownable. The more things it’s possible for people to own, the more things they can be forced to sell you in order to pay for basic healthcare, enough to eat, and generally the right to be alive. And as a bonus, if you tell someone they own something, they’ll care for it proudly and protect it fiercely, just so they can turn around and surrender it to you when their kid gets sick! Hey, tough break. At least there’s all these ways to make some extra cash though, right? Sell your free time, sell your commute, sell your imagination, sell your reputation, literally sell your blood. And now: sell your privacy.

The more we can own, the poorer it’s possible to become.


How could being upgraded from ‘data prole’ to 'data petit bourgeoisie ’ possibly fail to protect my interests against people who grind data on a scale I can hardly imagine? There are absolutely no historical parallels that would have warned me that this would be a total massacre!



@zikzak 's articulations of complicated ideas are worth a full post!

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Market Fundamentalism

Aren’t you thinking very much inside the accepted terms of standard capitalism here?

Just saying.


Wonderful post, but if I may add something: I think the problem is that a majority of human see ownership as an opportunity to sell. Taking your example of extra water, if someone has extra water, they want to be able to make extra money with it.
Coming back to surveillance capitalism: people want to sell their privacy. They already do it: that is the basis behind customer cards: you sell the privacy against discounts. Health insurances pay you to wear a tracker. I would be that if FB and Google would pay you to volunter more info, masses would flock to take the offer.
I don’t see a solution to that problem, especially in a democratic society. When the majority wants to sell their privacy to make a bit money on the side, what can a democratic society do against it?

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The best thing I can be is a student. Teach me this non-standard capitalism you’re referring to.

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Saying “a majority of humans” makes it sound like we are talking about an inherent human quality, rather than an artifact of the culture we’re arguing against. But I also don’t think it’s even literally true. I think most people’s impulse if they have too much of something would be to store it for later or to share it with people they care about.

I don’t think the majority of people do want to sell their privacy. They feel their privacy is an inalienable right. That feeling that privacy is theirs alone is part of what makes them comfortable selling their data. When that data is used in a way that feels like an invasion of privacy to them, they feel wronged, and they don’t think it was the worth the paltry amount they were paid for it. I think there is a massive information imbalance. I think when people sell their personal information they make assumptions about how it will be used. One of the (absurd) assumptions of the free market is that everyone has good information on which to make their decisions.

I know this sounds trite, but the only reason we expect them to be free is because they were offered to us for free. The people making that offer had intent to deceive us about the real cost of what they were offering. At the same time, I think all of that data was never really a goldmine to advertisers. Until someone does real world studies showing that sales of actual products have increased because of microtargeting ads, I don’t really trust the feeling that it would. Some of the recent facebook documents obtained the UK government have made it seem to me that swindling people out of data is mostly just a smokescreen. Their real business is swindling advertisers out of money by selling them snake oil.

People who have been conned may hang onto the con as a way of shielding themselves from the horrible mistake they made. I feel like we are in the grips of a collective delusion because admitting how stupid we’ve been would involve admitting that venture capitalists make stupid investments which would be admitting that we really shouldn’t let billionaires make all of our decisions for us which would be admitting that we probably shouldn’t allow individuals to amass that much money (and therefore power) to begin with.

I’m still on board with the basic idea of the article: the refusal to balance property rights against anything is the philosophy that got us in this mess, and property rights aren’t going to get us out of it.


You outline a limitation of democracy that we’re running in to with increasing frequency: individual freedom of choice is insufficient to produce a free society in the face of well-developed cybernetic control systems.

Both the free market and the democratic process are premised on the idea that if each individual chooses to support their own interest, a consensus will emerge which balances all interests. This doesn’t work in the marketplace for the reasons discussed above, and it seems pretty clear it’s not working in the democratic process either. This is because the power elites in our society have “solved for” the individual. They’ve developed (and are continuing to develop) systems of influence complex enough that they’re able to nudge any given individual towards the desired outcome. They can use the price signals of the market, the propaganda signals of media/advertising, even the cultural signals of social media, plus a lot of more subtle systems we don’t talk about as much. An individual is powerless against the combined influence of all these factors, because as @anon50609448 says, there’s just a tremendous power imbalance at work: one individual versus a system composed of countless human minds and computer systems all employed by the same institution.

What hasn’t been solved for is communities. Communities are the solution. And I don’t mean like “the Reddit community”, I mean groups/networks of people who live and relate with each other outside the influence of these control systems. Groups of people can combine their power to form an effective counterbalance against the tricks of cybernetic governance. Communities have the potential to be autonomous.

This means relating to each other outside capitalism: sharing and pooling wealth, and freely exchanging labor to help each other regardless of what the market says is profitable. Relating outside democracy: refusing to defer to the “elected” laws and rulers of the land, and also refusing to elect our own rulers who can be turned against us. Relating outside media/propaganda: questioning and rejecting the norms and values media tries to instill about gender, race, class, etc. And relating outside surveillance: interacting and communicating face-to-face, or via channels which are not laid bare for advertisers and spooks to analyze and manipulate.

Well that went long, but I hope it makes sense!


Again, a very thoughtful post. Thank you. I am only editing out bits to make my post not too long.
I’ll answer the “inherent human quality” argument first. It is difficult to argue for or against the argument, but humans have been trading between tribes for a long time. I would think it is somewhat “inherent” that, when you have too much of something for you to use, you try to trade it with others. It is simply an advantageous situation.

People do sell their privacy. As I said, that is the basic assumption behind customer loyalty cards and these are immensely popular. I understand your argument that people may not make well informed decisions, but I am not so sure it holds. Each time I tried to tell people around me about the problems with customer loyalty cards, the discussion turned sour with the other party implying that I was an idiot for not taking advantage of the offer. Except in circles already very privacy conscious, like activists or hackers, and that is an interesting exception. Possibly, the circles around you are more privacy concious than average.

You may also consider that there is a perverse effect of privacy. In the view of more people than I like, by demonstrating that one cares about privacy, one advertises that they have something to hide. One also demonstrates that one fears retribution, should their hidden private actions come to light. Hence, the people advertising themselves of having nothing to hide advertise themselves as both good citizens and fearless for retribution, i.e. of high status. There is social pressure for one to pretend one is an open book.

Yes, to the two arguments. I especially like the idea that big data may not bring all that money. But then, it may be there for a different reason, but I am not really sure which one.

(Here again, I only edit the post to make my post not too long.)

I agree. I can even give examples. In the realm of privacy rights and networks, communities as: hackerspaces, the free software foundation, chaos computer club (Germany), quadrature du net (France), etc… have proved to be very useful counterpowers. They may not be quite the communities you were thinking about, but they are communities nevertheless.



(No, it’s not a complete sentence, but it’s a coherent thought. Thank you, unhelpful bOINGbOING filter.)

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