Digi­tal self-determination.

The political debate needs to take place.

Data is a crucial resource in our digi­tal-driven society, under­pin­ning machine lear­ning (often known as ‘arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence’) and perso­na­li­sed adver­ti­sing, for instance. At the same time, large swathes of society, poli­ti­ci­ans and busi­nesses are utterly unaware of its signi­fi­cance. That’s why we need a poli­ti­cal debate on digi­tal self-determination. 

Unlike oil or gold, data is a finite resource that can be used multi­ple times and combi­ned in as many ways as desi­red. Plus, our perso­nal data can be used to earn huge sums of money. In 2021, Google’s profits were USD 76 billion, with about 80% of this coming from the sale of adver­ti­sing. Exxon Mobile, the world’s second largest oil conglo­me­rate, earned a compa­ra­tively modest USD 23 billion in the same period. And we conti­nue to willingly feed the data krakens with this resource. 

The socie­tal debate about data as a resource is indeed taking place in Switz­er­land, but this topic is discus­sed far too rarely on a poli­ti­cal level. But that’s exactly where it should be explo­red: the topic is far too complex for respon­si­bi­lity to be shifted on to indi­vi­du­als. And let’s be honest, ordi­nary citi­zens are in no posi­tion to escape the clut­ches of the data kraken – and haven’t been for some time.

Time is running out: ‘The conflict of inte­rest between compa­nies’ need for data, the protec­tion of indi­vi­du­als’ private sphe­res and the social inte­rest in open data is signi­fi­cant,’ writes the Risk Dialo­gue Foun­da­tion in Digi­tal­Ba­ro­me­ter 2023. Accor­ding to this survey, people have a high level of trust that Swiss tech­no­logy compa­nies will handle their data legally and carefully, at 60%. Howe­ver, this is a rather vague feeling, rather than cold, hard facts – as illus­tra­ted by nume­rous Swiss data scan­dals. In compa­ri­son, accor­ding to Digi­tal­Ba­ro­me­ter 2023, people place almost no trust in inter­na­tio­nal compa­nies (Google, Face­book and so on): they come in at 17%. Despite this distrust, most Swiss people use tools provi­ded by big tech every single day. 

The issue is also the respon­si­bi­lity of Swiss foundations

If Swiss foun­da­ti­ons want to live up to their social respon­si­bi­lity, they must engage in this poli­ti­cal debate. After all, the key topics within digi­ta­li­sa­tion (data, algo­rithms, the public sphere) have very close ties to power and our under­stan­ding of demo­cra­tic values. Along­side climate change, digi­ta­li­sa­tion is one of the major issues facing our society and will have a funda­men­tal impact on every field in which foun­da­ti­ons are invol­ved. For instance, data supports envi­ron­men­tal protec­tion and health rese­arch and faci­li­ta­tes custo­mi­sed lear­ning methods. Howe­ver, it can also reveal our poli­ti­cal leanings, ascer­tain the likeli­hood that a crimi­nal will re-offend and enable auto­ma­ted facial reco­gni­tion. Ethi­cal ques­ti­ons crop up very quickly in this respect – but they are asked far too rarely.

The term ‘surveil­lance capi­ta­lism’, coined by US econo­mist Shoshana Zuboff, might seem too bold. Howe­ver, Switzerland’s secret files scan­dal or the acti­vi­ties of the Stasi in the GDR pale in compa­ri­son compared with the encroach­ment of Google and Face­book into our private lives. 

We must answer certain econo­mic, social and socie­tal questions

What should happen to the huge treasure trove of data that tech heavy­weights have captu­red from us over the past few deca­des? We cannot ask for it back. But poli­ti­ci­ans can ensure that data, as a colla­bo­ra­tively used resource, bene­fits the economy, the media and civil society and can be deployed for non-profit purposes. 

How does it affect our economy and our prospe­rity if a small number of foreign tech giants have one of the most important resour­ces of our time at their dispo­sal? What does this mean for Swiss banks, the phar­maceu­ti­cal sector, commo­di­ties trading, Europe’s auto­mo­tive indus­try? To say nothing of the poten­tial for non-profit purpo­ses. Do we need to curtail the econo­mic power wiel­ded by the tech heavyweights?

As foun­da­ti­ons, we should contri­bute answers to these ques­ti­ons. At Stif­tung Merca­tor Schweiz, we have been looking at the issue of digi­tal self-deter­mi­na­tion for four years now. We want people to able to decide for them­sel­ves who gets their data and what happens with it. As indi­vi­du­als, we have long since ceded our ability to make decis­i­ons in this respect – so we believe that poli­ti­cal regu­la­tion and colla­bo­ra­tive action are called for. Expert orga­ni­sa­ti­ons within our civil society, such as Digi­tale Gesell­schaft, Algo­rithm Watch and Opendata.ch, alre­ady play a key role here. As a result, we no longer simply support key stake­hol­ders in the ecosys­tem on a project basis; we also offer holi­stic, orga­ni­sa­tion-level assis­tance. Beyond this, we will conti­nue to promote know­ledge, spark debate and thus help to rein­force civil society.

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