Data, algorithms, ethics, and identity

Yenn Lee, SOAS University of London – Proxemics as a way to conceptualize overlaps of personal data in social media

In current discussions on the fair and effective governance of personal data, the focus has been predominantly on situations where high-powered entities threaten individual rights and freedoms. Familiar examples include the state subjecting its citizens to technologically enabled surveillance or global social media companies monetising their users’ data. However, insufficient attention has been paid to situations where personal data and privacy are compromised by other lay individuals. To take a simple example, you may wish to post online about an interesting experience you have had, but chances are that the post will also implicate other people, and vice versa. Data subject rights and privacy violations at the interpersonal level are hard to draw the line about, let alone to combat, in digital communication environments.

Against this backdrop, this study aims to propose a way to reconcile the varying perceptions of ownerships, ethics, and etiquette around digital objects containing personal data, be it of one’s own or someone else’s. The study first examines 26 data classification frameworks that have been put forward in the previous literatures across disciplines between 2000 and 2017. It then points to questions that have been underrepresented in those classifications, such as whether given personal data is intentionally produced and how much legal and technical agency that individuals have over the ways in which data about themselves is handled. In order to consider these questions in a more systematic and culturally informed way, this study draws upon Hall’s theory of “proxemics” (1969). His theory is about how people use and perceive the physical space around them and hence originally has nothing to do with digital data. The present study demonstrates that this classical social theory can offer useful insights for researchers, policy makers, and activists in their work to support those vulnerable to digital harassment.

Ruth Flaherty, University of East Anglia – Fannish Social Interactions Online: More than Produsage?

Even before the birth of the digital era, fans of film, television and literary works have been socially active, sharing resources offline and publishing creative media via ‘zines’. As early adopters of many types of social media – such as forums, blogs and online archives – the fandom group provides a fascinating case study of the effect of social media on the consumption of media products. Most existing literature has been ethnographic in nature and focuses on the literary and media (Jenkins, 2013 and 2006; Jamison, 2013) or legal (Tushnet, 1997) implications of fan activities. This paper adopts a distinctive approach, applying quantitative methods to test the economic biases within copyright law as they apply to this social group. Using a dataset of user postings from the world’s largest online fanfiction archive (Fanfiction.Net) and sales data (Nielsen), this study suggests that fans should be considered a special type of “produser” (Bird, 2011; Bratich, 2011, Bruns, 2008) who have a focus on utility maximisation rather than profit (Scott-Morton and Podolny, 1998). Indeed, while copyright law and economics presumes fans to maximise their utility by adapting original works – thus interfering with the ‘normal exploitation’ of that work – this research indicates that more important social incentives are at play, such as the desire to improve writing skills and assist others with the same. Copyright law makes no allowances for this type of social interaction online, which presents notable challenges that are evident from the furore surrounding the passage of the proposed EU Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market. This research is important as it uses data to draw together and test previous research into media production/consumption, thereby enabling conclusions to be drawn on how copyright and technology should be used to regulate social interactions among fans online.

Dan M. Kotliar, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem – The return of the social: On the socio-algorithmic construction of identity categories

In this paper I argue that algorithmically-formed social categories stem from epistemic amalgams – complex blends of algorithmic outputs, human expertise, messy data flows, and labels. Relying on an ethnographic study of the Israeli data analytics scene, this paper offers a closer look at algorithmic profiling, and specifically, at the role of expert knowledge, language, and social theory in the algorithmic construction of social categories. I will argue that while human language, theory, and social expertise are often described (by programmers and critical thinkers alike) as superfluous to algorithmic categorization, they still play a role in how companies categorize users, and accordingly, in the (re)construction of identity categories. Moreover, seeing algorithms as socio-technical assemblages (Morris 2015; Kitchin 2017; Seaver 2017; Neyland and Möllers 2017), I will argue that the malleability of algorithmic identities (Cheney-Lippold 2017) and the flexibility of algorithmically-formed social categories not only stem from the epistemic nature of algorithms or their data, but from diverse socio-cultural determinants. The names, meanings, and even existence of such categories are deeply affected by often-very-local inter-organizational relationships, meaning systems, and practices.

Wil Chivers – Cardiff University – Platform Cooperativism: Taking back control of the digital economy

Ownership and control of infrastructure and data in the digital economy is a pressing concern that raises important questions of ethics, governance and democracy. These go hand-in-hand with the trend that companies such as Uber, Amazon, Facebook and Google have monopolised certain sectors of the economy and that their business practices marginalise and disempower users of their services and those who make a living via their platforms. These practices have been immensely damaging in particular for workers’ rights, with companies like Uber or Deliveroo facing criticism for failing to meet acceptable standards of employment such as the minimum wage or collective bargaining.

In the face of this, a new movement is emerging that challenges the status quo of the digital economy. ‘Platform cooperativism’ seeks to create a more equitable world of work through co-ownership of data and digital infrastructure. Workers and service users are building their own platforms that are democratically owned and operated in an attempt to take back control of their labour and their data. There is a growing community around platform cooperativism, accompanied by increased opportunities for funding and support.

In this paper I report on exploratory fieldwork with platform cooperatives in the UK. While there is existing research around cooperative forms of organisation, there is a lack of empirical evidence around the role of digital technologies that support this movement and the people who build the infrastructure for this alternative economy. Consequently, this paper begins to chart the extent and variety of platform cooperativism in the UK, as well as explore the motivations and ideologies of those involved. I situate this work in the context of the ‘gig economy’ and resistance to digital inequalities and conclude by suggesting a broader research agenda in this field.