18 April 2018

I remember when I first heard about fair trade coffee. I must have been eighteen or so when those light blue and green labels started appearing on coffee bags. I wasn’t very political as a teenager, so was instinctively attracted to the idea that I could make as much difference at the shopping till as the ballot box. I realised there were lots of ways to make change happen: small day-to-day decisions, once added up, could amount to something.

We need a similar movement today – this time with information. I’ll call it fair trade data. Just like with coffee, it starts with the realisation that every click, swipe and online search is a political gesture, and deserves attention.

No, this isn’t just about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. Unless you’ve been living off-grid the last few weeks – and I wouldn’t blame you – the basics of this story will be familiar: a former employee of the UK data analysis firm, Cambridge Analytica, claimed the company had accessed millions of Facebook users’ data without the proper permissions to help Trump get elected. Cambridge Analytica denies this. There followed a Channel 4 documentary, which caught Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix bragging about various shady ways his company could win elections. Then it was revealed by Facebook, in a company blog post, that ‘most people’ with a public profile could have had their data scraped by ‘malicious actors’. Facebook’s share price took a multi-billion dollar beating. Mark Zuckerberg even agreed to appear in front of Congress.

The response has surprised even the most ardent of tech-critics. People are talking about #deleteFacebook, nationalising Facebook, breaking up Facebook. But the truth is that the Cambridge Analytica story is a bit of a distraction. Not only are most of the digital methods used by Cambridge Analytica both perfectly legal and widespread, it’s also a small part of a wider problem. Big tech is undermining democracy in all sorts of ways beyond elections. We’re building mega-monopolies with our clicks and shares, and the more we feed them, the smarter they become. The free-services-for-data deal we all sign up to is making us distracted, addicted, and increasingly polarised. Algorithms – built on data we’ve shared – make more and more decisions about our lives, and hardly anyone understands them or can figure out whether they are sexist, racist, radicalising, or whatever else. And the data collection frenzy is just starting – soon we’ll have internet enabled fridges, cars, clothes, baby toys, all creating data to be collected and analysed.

The People vs Tech

The truth is that the Cambridge Analytica story is a bit of a distraction. Not only are most of the digital methods used by Cambridge Analytica both perfectly legal and widespread, it’s also a small part of a wider problem.

This is why citizens need to think hard about their online behaviour – and realise that the data-led techno-dystopia is something that we have built, and therefore something we can probably stop. (There’s a role for regulators – a big role – but let’s put that to one side for a moment). It won’t be easy, of course. But in the end, nothing is as powerful as consumer choice.

What might the conscious digital citizen looking to use fair trade data actually do? First, she will realise that we, as users, have built the modern mega-monopolies – and that our ongoing addiction to free digital services or cheap taxis is making them stronger – and take some responsibility for that. She will read the terms and conditions (or some of them, at least) rather than mindlessly clicking ‘yes’ to everything that pops up. She will ponder whether her click is responsible in the context for workers rights, taxation, or zero-hour contract.

She will realise that her data choices are feeding the machine, too, and consider the consequences. The big tech oligopolies – Facebook, Google, YouTube, Uber, Amazon – have become so powerful because they’re such fantastically convenient and useful services. But there are lots of smaller companies providing social media, internet search, online shopping, taxi or home rentals. She will research them and be responsible in her decision-making – looking out for those providers that have ethical data use policies or share profits fairly with workers.

The People vs Tech

It is sometimes said we get the politicians we deserve. The same is true of social media.

Perhaps she'll consider 'open source' platforms where all the code is publicly viewable, or 'peer-to-peer’ services where everything is heavily encrypted and no-one can see what you're doing online. They might be more expensive and less efficient, but that’s a price worth paying. After all, they will only grow if we start using them – social media platforms can enjoy exponential growth because they benefit from network effects: the more people using them, the more people join, which means more people using them, which means…

And if this citizen is worried about the decline in traditional media, then there’s an easy answer. Good journalism needs to be paid for, so she subscribes or donates. That includes the local newspaper, which is both a source of local accountability and a training ground for the next generation of watchkeepers.

And sometimes – just sometimes – the ethical digital consumer might even switch off entirely. Part of the problem with online life is that many social media services are designed to be as addictive as possible, since the more time you spend online, the more profitable it is for the company. To break that model requires some real effort to plan personal time and space carefully, to not become a slave to internet addiction and the relentless, frenetic nature of life online at the cost of her powers of concentration and focus.

We, the people, built Facebook. We built them all. And we are still building now, with our clicks, swipes, likes and shares. It is sometimes said we get the politicians we deserve. The same is true of social media. We can unbuild it too.

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