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Data activism: The politics of big data according to civil society

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Civil rights and wrongs: how data and democracy interact

Long subject to invasive and even oppressive applications of big data, citizens are now turning these tools on governments and big business. By tracing the fine line between useful data and abusive surveillance, the DATACTIVE project depicts under-the-radar conflicts that could reshape society as we know it.

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Literature tells us that ‘data is the new oil’. Businesses need it to know more about our tastes and purchasing habits, politicians want it to win elections, and governments count on it – most often – for the greater good. But how about civil society? For the past decade, data journalism and human rights investigations using online data have demonstrated the value of big data for non-governmental and non-market actors. Yet, from a research perspective, the connection between citizenship, political participation and big data remained relatively unexplored before the European Research Council (ERC) funded DATACTIVE (Data activism: The politics of big data according to civil society) project kicked off. “DATACTIVE combined in-depth interviews with 250 activists, human rights defenders and digital rights advocates with field observations in both real life and cyberspace, as well as data mining techniques. The idea was to capture what people think and say about data and data infrastructure, what they do with them, and how algorithms mediate both,” says principal investigator Stefania Milan, associate professor of New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. The project focused on three knowledge gaps: the lack of understanding of civil society engagement with data, the link between resistance to and advocacy for big data, and the collective and software dimension of activism involving the use of data.

COVID-19 techno-solutionism

The project team exposed the role of data as a mediator in digital activism. It can either be a ‘stake’ – an object of political struggle – or be mobilised as part of ‘repertoires’ or modular tools for political struggle. In this sense, several interesting trends have been identified. The project took a close look at societal trends such as open data, resistance to surveillance, open-source intelligence, 5G, and the effects of Facebook personalisation algorithms on the Dutch national election in March 2021. Milan’s team identified a widening divide between those who are visible in official records, and the ‘data poor’ who are not. This was acutely manifested during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, as marginalised communities such as unregistered people and undocumented migrants struggled to access care. “We created a multilingual blog that investigates how the virus is experienced by individuals and communities on the margins, while criticising what we call the ‘techno-solutionism’ which characterised the response to the pandemic,” explains Milan. DATACTIVE investigated how COVID-19 contributed to ‘lowering the guard’ with respect to privacy risks. The diffusion of a new mode of governance where contact tracing apps, thermal facial recognition cameras and educational platforms have progressively taken over functions usually reserved for administrations and governmental entities is particularly worrying, according to Milan. “It negatively impacts citizen sovereignty over their own data while increasing inequality and discrimination. The EU vaccination certificate is the culmination of this trend: it legitimises inequalities between countries and people by formalising ways to distinguish between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, and eventually excluding the latter. This is particularly visible in the southern hemisphere where access to vaccines is very limited.”

Citizen action

Meanwhile, DATACTIVE could observe how data transparency and open data have become a currency in the fight against the pandemic. Citizens in countries like Brazil use it to develop counter-narratives in the face of government inaction, while some grassroots actors and NGOs increasingly resist the diffusion of facial recognition in society. The ‘Reclaim your face’ petition in the EU is the culmination of these efforts. “Eventually, we hope our project will encourage more people to ‘play with data’. We would like different data activist initiatives to explore complementarities and to spread awareness of the problems and opportunities of datafication. This might help leverage good civil society practices for knowledge and public policy agendas,” Milan says. Whilst DATACTIVE has come to an end, research will continue under various other projects. These include plans to develop technology standards for 5G networks that respect human rights by design, development of software to study personalisation algorithms, as well as further research on technological innovations increasing discrimination and injustice.


DATACTIVE, big data, human rights, civil society, digital activism, COVID-19

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