Our readings for the week touch upon four areas:
- “Filter bubbles” and their threat to the Internet’s promise to connect and expose us to a larger world view
- Potential solutions to the “filter bubble” problem
- The role of individuals, parents, companies and government in setting the norms for online interaction for the generation that are Digital Natives
- The need to keep the internet itself open and free and preventing it from being exploited by repressive governments and large corporations.
What I have found most interesting across the four readings is the role of the private sector, particularly in light of the recent debate and pushback that some of the larger corporations are facing as well as the long term implications of privacy and personal data.
Over the last decades we have seen the “traditional” debate about corporate responsibility play out in several fields. Over the last century this debate played out in areas such as labour rights and safety standards while in the last two decades the dialogue around shareholder value vs a broader concept of stakeholder value centred in particular in the area of environmental conservation and long term sustainability. In the 2010s it seems we are going to see this debate played out in the area of digital rights and responsibilities.
Eli Pariser in his TED talk warns us that the filters used by Google, Facebook and other companies are creating a world where we are gated and locked further into our own narrow world views and appeals to these companies to change this structure.
Jonathan Stray suggests in his piece that companies should design better filtering algorithms that may allow us to choose to have exposure to ideas and concepts we would not normally place in our circles of interest but acknowledges that designing such algorithms could be a technical challenge.
In “Born Digital”, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser argue that for today’s youth, the Digital Natives, the concept of privacy is fundamentally different and that companies, amongst others, have a responsibility to help users understand how to better protect their privacy. They suggest that the privacy issue is the Achilles’ heel of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, MySpace and others and that they will need to “compete” based on the quality of their privacy policies. They suggest it is not up to the user to maintain multiple relationships with multiple companies about their data and that the paradigm needs to shift from a firm-centric model to a user-centric one.
Rebecca Mackinnon, in “Consent of the Networked” notes that companies act as the new sovereigns of cyberspace, form opaque relationships with repressive goverments and how their failure to take responsibility for their power over their citizen’s political lives corrodes the Internet’s democratic potential. She suggest that they should follow the same pattern of accountability that much older industries have begun to do with their workers, shareholders and broader stakeholders. She also notes that creating a more netizen-centric system may even hold lucrative business opportunities through the generation of shared value.
While each of the readings describe the need for corporate responsibility in the digital space, they do not define the scope of such responsibility and implications our future as cyberspace citizens.
Is it truly difficult to design better filtering algorithms or do companies simply not want to invest in areas that don’t allow for neat patterns of advertizing? Will companies recognize their own enlightened self-interest in being better digital citizens and take on responsibility for protecting the privacy and rights of individuals?
Should governments or international institutions help define these rights and if so, which body? Will citizen regulation work better than either self- or government-regulation? Do we need new quadruple bottomline measures that benchmark companies against economic, social, environmental and digital criteria?
What type of emerging businesses will thrive to capitalize upon as well as address these concerns? What kind of future professional branding and reputational support will be needed by Digital Natives who share every teenage experiment in cyberspace? Will personal data become the world’s most valuable new asset class?
Perhaps next week’s readings will address some of these questions. Until then, I will try to resist the urge to delete my Facebook, Skype, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google accounts.
This blog has been written for academic purposes for the course Media, Politics and Power (DPI 659) at Harvard University (fall 2012).