Digital Division, a commentary on the rich and poor

I’ve recently read an article by the Daily Dot entitled “Privacy is creating a new digital divide between the rich and poor” and it feels problematic. It explores how only the educated and wealthy can afford to be private citizens in the digital. What does it mean to be wealthy in the post-digital age? What does privacy even mean? Why is it treated as a good and not a right? Why should we have to earn privacy? And how can open access materials mean that free education (zero-cost after internet connection fee) so that it isn’t a privilege but a fundamental right?

The commodification of ‘privacy’

It isn’t revolutionary to claim that we don’t pay for online services with our wallets, but with our data. It also isn’t a new history that distributed technologies (i.e. the internet) disrupted traditional business models that consequently cornered companies to explore different avenues to generate profit (Keen, 2015). Banner advertisements across pages were like-for-like digital replicas of the adverts found in print publishing: they were not personalised, nor consciously noticed (Nielson, 2007). In the age of personalised ads, we have to think about how those adverts have been tailored for each and every one of us: what information is collected from where and how did that information reach an advertising space elsewhere?(Davis, 2014).

If data is cyber-currency then how can we begin to understand our own capital when we are displaced from the transactions? How can we understand how much our data is worth? An email address may not really mean much on its own, but when it is triangulated with other actual and inferred data, it appears to become much more valuable – but how valuable? And to whom? Will we ever know? Are the inferences even right? What might these inferences mean in the future?

How do we define ‘privacy’?

I feel that I am struggling with ‘privacy’ as a term. As it migrates to the digital space, it is taking on new meaning politically, socially and economically. Since 9/11 data sharing and ubiquitous surveillance is justified as a matter of national security. And if you want to make a message technologically private (through encryption, say) then you are deemed to have something to hide. Yet still, in social networks there is clearly still a need for privacy: enabling public and controlled sharing environments that filter who information is shared with. But doesn’t this feel like a paradox? Because a ‘closed’ space enables me to control who in my network can see the information I share, it doesn’t mean that I can control the information seen and used by the service provider. So what constitutes a private transaction?

Underneath the practicalities of data sharing comes complex issues around power and control, and who exerts it.

Surely, isn’t privacy about understanding the context in which information is going to be shared: where it is stored (what federal jurisdiction does it belong to), who it is shared with (which people), who it is collected by (service and third-party) and how it is used (service and third-party). I hastily think of the notion “knowledge is power” (Bacon) whereby power means ability to control. But I think I need to explore this philosophy much further.

Privacy-by-design tools

The article talks about how there are paid-for privacy enabling technologies such as VPNs and email services. When working with the belief that services have to be paid somehow it means that if you are not paying with your data then it has to be with your wallet. However, while there are some great paid-for services, there is also a great deal of privacy-enabling tools that are free. While more and more services are migrating from software to browser-based applications, the TOR browser feels like a great service to exploit that obfuscates IP addresses which will be tracked by third parties. Equally, there are lots of other free applications for mobile devices that enable end-to-end encrypted messaging (Signal, Confide, Wickr).

So what?

While we wait for ministers to convince political stakeholders to change laws that will enable internet freedoms, the digital economy keeps on turning and we are arbitrarily fuelling it, even the wealthy. While we could also wait for a privacy-by-design radical innovation (Kaiserfeld, 2005) to disrupt the current data collection and sharing practices, we can actually start to innovate from the bottom up, relying less on inventions made by the few, and more on the education of the many. This does bring into question why have we become victims of the system, changing our behaviours rather than expecting the system to change for us. But at this moment, I am inclined to believe that these notions are mutually exclusive: systems will not change unless there is high enough demand.

What kind of meaningful interventions can we construct that means people don’t have to pay for an education with their wallet nor their data? How can we embrace distributed networked technologies, open educational resources and practices to embody these interventions? Therefore, can we make education the vehicle to enable actors to increase the demand for change from government and industry?


  3. The Internet is Not the Answer – Andrew Keen (2015)
  4. Kaiserfeld, T. (2005). A Review of Theories of Invention and Innovation. CESIS: Electronic Working Paper Series.

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