The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics seeks to strengthen teaching and research about pressing ethical issues; to foster sound norms of ethical reasoning and civic discussion; and to share the work of our community in the public interest.
For the Record
For the Record’ is a feature where our Fellows-in-Residence and Graduate Fellows have a chance to present their research ideas informally, reflect on their experience at the Center, or report on Center events. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics or other group or individual.
This month's For the Record comes from Eugene P. Beard Graduate Fellow in Ethics, Elettra Bietti, SJD student at Harvard Law School and an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Her thesis focuses on information gatekeepers such as Facebook and Google. She is currently exploring these companies' moral and legal obligations towards individuals through a methodology drawn from political theory and public law, considering them as sites of contestation, in which new interests and forms of social organization demand for a reconfiguration of individual rights, entitlements, and obligations.
Locked-in Data Production: User-Dignity and Capture in the Platform Economy
“Data” can be many different things: information about a person (e.g., date of birth, name of pet, current or past location), content (e.g., this blog post), metadata or information about information (e.g., where data is stored, who stored it and how, or the number of amendments that this blog post underwent), information that might indirectly relate to a person (e.g., the number of people who visited the gym yesterday, the most on-demand body product in a neighborhood), or information that is not about people at all (e.g., the chemical composition of the ozone layer). With the advent of the Internet, of large technology platforms, and of the data economy, questions emerge as to how flows of data, or subsets of it, should be governed and constrained, particularly as they relate to persons, and how data might affect their lives and well-being.
Consider three scenarios:
Ali has a passion for playing classical music and a YouTube channel. In his free time he records and posts videos of his piano performances. He has a few videos with more than 100K views. Should he be compensated by YouTube for the traffic that his videos generate, and if so how?
Eli likes good food. At Whole Foods, the cashier always asks her if she has an Amazon Prime account. When she links her Prime account to her purchase she normally obtains a five-dollar discount. Has she been fairly compensated for her data through that discount? Does she have additional rights to understand whether that compensation was fair?
Oli is a PhD student and spends a lot of time on Facebook. Should Oli’s time on Facebook be compensated on the ground that it generates useful data for Facebook? Should Oli have other rights against Facebook on the basis of his participatory activities?
These three cases strike us as very distinct, yet a common thread underlies them: What rights do individuals have to be compensated by or to share profits with platforms for the data and content they contribute? Is there a simple and general way to clarify, correct, and potentially address the existing power asymmetries between individuals and platforms in these contexts? My intuition is that the answer to these questions must depend on the specific facts of each case, because different kinds of information are produced in different ways, raise separate problems, and demand separate solutions. Read more