Data, Privacy, and Science: Future of The Human Civilization
by Hülya AFAT
Data processing has been the main accelerator of modern science in the last five decades. As much as the social sciences, data processing is used by the big corporations and the advertisement agencies since the internet became the core marketplace. There are some cases that the privacy of internet users was invaded by big corporations to make profits. As an Economics student, I would like to examine the relationship between data, privacy, and science by examining the usage and the exploitation of data in the global economy in three main points: Data Processing for Future, Data and Capitalism, and Science and Intellectual Property.
Data Processing for Future
By the classical definition; Economics crates models to find an efficient way to use and distribute scarce resources. Adam Smith’s Economics was about regulating the marketplace against monopolies and provide a stable level of welfare by implementing fiscal policies. Neoliberalism transformed that purpose into individualistic-profit-maximizing by economizing (i.e. price tagging the problems such as natural pollution). One aspect of Classical Economics stayed still to this day: efficiency. In this part of the paper, I will analyze the Macroeconomics’ foundation on data processing and modeling.
Macroeconomic modeling aims to allocate the most efficient policies to implement in order to sustain economic growth. By aspiring to predict the future of the economy, macroeconomics also explains the consequences of past fiscal mistakes. The most used way to form a model is to look at the past data and produce the best hypothesis explaining the effects those variables have on each other. Data collection can be performed in different ways such as conducting a survey or gathering the data from past researches. Since usually the Macroeconomic data collection is directed to use by/for the government, government archives such as tax revenues and rates through time are another resource for research. Economic growth, exchange rates, population, inflation, and interest rates are some of the main inputs and outputs of macroeconomics models, the government’s purpose is to balance these figures through fiscal policies and market mechanisms while maximizing the economic growth and enhancing the welfare level of public. At least, in an idealistic world where governments also care about their citizens’ wellbeing and not only maximizing the big corporations’ profits in order to remain in charge it is.
Data and Capitalism
On the other hand, microeconomics studies the market mechanisms, the behavioral response of the individuals to the changes in the market, and the efficiency of supply-demand equilibria. Microeconomics has some other tools to collect data and some other motivations to use the data. First, conducting an experiment and observing the data coming out of it is a tool also used by macroeconomics, but the advertisement or pricing purposes solely belong to microeconomics.
Secondly, as frequent internet users, we are all aware that any activity or purchase we conduct is a statistic to be used against or in favor of us. The subject is personalized advertisement, as you would have guessed probably. Personalized advertisement is actually beneficial for both supplier and the consumer if we look at it from the market’s perspective. If the consumer sees an ad that they are not interested in, the probability of them purchasing the product is low and the advertisement money was spent in vain. The personalized ad case is in both the consumer’s and the supplier’s benefit because the consumer sees an ad that they might purchase and the supplier paid for an ad that has a high probability to be concluded with a purchase. Plus, the supplier and the consumer are not the only one profiting off of this, the platform showing the ad itself makes the most profit in this situation. Additionally, making the experience of social media personalized for individuals also concludes in those individuals staying on the platform longer, hence more time to show more ads. (1) The issue with the personalized internet experience is the way of data collection, being aware of that your private text exchanges with someone are being processed for the sake of showing you some ads that you might be interested in is pretty dystopian.
Finally, the political misuse of private data has been an issue with some social media platforms in the past. I would have like to explain the Median Voter Theorem and the reasoning behind these misusages of data, but I am willing to neither explain nor justify the manipulation made in order to gain political power. So, this is another wrong way to benefit from data processing and totally not ethical.
Science and Intellectual Property
Enough about economics, we need to examine the concept of science and knowledge also. Before the digital age, scientific methodology and knowledge were cumulative which means every new research was made to advance past research. This was a tradition since Ancient Greek while the philosophical knowledge past from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle and was developed cumulatively.(2) We can observe the tradition in natural sciences when Astronomy’s foundation was being established through 150 years and by three different men advancing one another’s knowledge.(3) The more advanced the technology gets, the faster the advancement happens in the digital age.
The concept of privacy was sound and clear when the issue was text messages. When the issue is innovation and profiting off of it, it gets trickier. There is no question that competitiveness brings efficiency and innovation in the market. However the issue gets deeper and trickier than the new model of a smartphone release, we need to go back to 2008 and look into the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” and “The Open Access Movement”. In “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto”, Aaron Schwartz draws attention to the digitalization of the centuries of scientific and cultural publications getting locked by a few publishing companies and profiting off of them while interrupting the scientific progress.(4) “The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it,” claims Schwartz, offering a more inclusive and accessible way of publishing.(5) A decade later, “cOALition S” was launched in order to “make full and immediate Open Access to research publications a reality”.(6) Open Access resources are expanding every day and the perception of the intellectual property is transforming from a profit source to a cited source used for scientific purposes.
The factor determines whether an act of use of data is wrong or not is the motive. Of course, the ethics of work varies from people to people, but we can all agree on some basic points. First, if it is invading privacy to profit off of it, it is wrong. Second, if it is gathering data to manipulate people into giving someone (political) power, it is wrong. Third, the scientific progress should not be interrupted by the profit maximizing motives. The ridiculousness of these publishing companies peaked at the moment when they asked me for money to access a paper about scientific progress. There can be no intent to defend multi-million companies who are selling centuries of knowledge to a college student writing a paper without any expectation of profit.
Data processing is our present moment and definitely will be our future. There is no benefit in denying that, the issue we are dealing with is the ethics of data processing and the data collection. We should acknowledge the difference between the motivation to enhance human civilization and to make a profit, and we should set our moral code according to that.