New seminar series: The Politics of Freedom in Data Times

It is clear that 'Big Data' offer a new type of power to those who can use it.  From mass surveillance and analysis of citizens’ metadata by security agencies like GCHQ and the NSA, to the apparent ability of relatively small private companies like Cambridge Analytica to influence elections, by using powerful algorithms to analyse data about what we ‘like’ from huge corporations like Facebook. The power that exists today to not only gather data about citizens, but to analyse and draw inference about what we think, who we are, and what we may do from that data, seems unprecedented. 

What is less clear for citizens and society however is whether traditional paradigms like privacy or civil liberties importantly captures what is happening, or whether a new politics of freedom is necessary.  Our seminar series, The Politics of Freedom in Data Times has invited scholars to come and directly take on these questions and with us at the New Political Communications Unit at Royal Holloway.

Thanks to Dr. Matthew Hall, ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow at NPCU, for organising the series.

Seminar 1: Surveillance and participation in data times 

Thursday 24th January 5pm - Windsor 0-03

Professor Kirstie Ball–St Andrews - Co-Director and founder of CRISP, the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy. Read more.

This seminar explores how participation as a concept can be used to interrogate surveillance practices and the ways in which they evolve. It focuses on the question of whether the surveilled subject could ever be examined in participatory terms. The conceptual focus of surveillance studies has been on the controlling moves of surveillant institutions to, as Murakami Wood and Ball (2013:3) put it, ‘align the time space of subjects with the ideologies and protocols of particular organisations’. The intersection of surveillance with questions of participation offers the potential for a new analytical language to develop. This language may highlight the presence or absence of vested interests, the relative porosity of institutional boundaries, the mechanisms (or absence thereof) whereby surveilled subjects and interested groups can challenge or shape surveillance and the forms of identity politics which emerge.

Seminar 2: Reconsidering rights and ethics in the era of digital security

Thursday 28th Feb 5pm - Windsor 1-04

Professor Pete Fussey, Department of Sociology, University of Essex, UK

Recent years have seen a growing digitalisation of human societies. Digital technology has become increasingly ubiquitous and progressively integral to virtually all aspects of our lives. Companioning these developments has been the increased importance of digital data, now generated in unparalleled quantities and analysed with unprecedented speed and depth. These changes hold particular implications for the commission of, and responses to crime. Regarding the latter, the law enforcement uses of AI, predictive technologies, merged data hubs, algorithmic decision-making and advanced video analytics have generated significant attention and commentary. The speed and character such change brings many new ethical challenges. This includes a tension between state’s duty to uphold the security of its citizens – demanded by Article 3 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights – and obligations to uphold other rights such as privacy, expression and freedom from harassment. Yet it is arguable that whilst such debates have generated significant heat, they have produced little light. Based on initial findings from a five-year ESRC funded project analysing the human rights implications of big data and ICT this paper explores a range of ethical issues generated by the use of such technologies. Extending beyond the standard, and limited, ‘privacy versus security’ frame, the paper considers a range of additional concerns, including issues of efficacy, proportionality, utility and harm, collateral intrusion, consent, accountability, oversight and regulation.

Seminar 3: I want to break free: Freedom of movement in datafied spaces

Monday 25th March 5pm - Windsor 0-04

Dr. Elinor Carmi,Postdoc Research Associate - Digital Media & Society, Liverpool University, UK.

As people's everyday lives are mediated by algorithmic and datafied spaces, it is difficult to know how much agency people can perform. Do people have the 'freedom' to make decisions and behave as they want? This talk will explore multi-layered datafied environments and how they manipulate the way people engage with them. The talk focuses on the way platforms and advertisers try to influence the way people behave by modifying the algorithmic architecture they use. This is conducted with a practice I call rhythmedia, which draws on the concepts of Henri Lefebvre rhythmanalysis and Raymond Williams' planned flow.

Seminar 4: Why do governments always get internet regulation wrong? Because they don’t embrace the mess…

Tuesday 30th April, 5pm - Queens 170

Dr Paul Bernal–Research Group: Media, Information Technology and Intellectual Property Law, University of East Anglia.  

The clamour for governments to ‘regulate' the internet has never been greater. They’re worried about offensive speech, about trolling and cyber-bullying, about fake news and political manipulation, about piracy and other forms of copyright breach. The internet, according to some of these accounts, is a dangerous place, a ‘wild west’ that needs to be reined in and controlled. And yet their efforts are largely ineffective - or worse, are actually counterproductive. Plans to address trolling end up creating tools for trolls to use on their victims. Attempts to deal with ‘fake news’ end up making fake news more effective and pushed nearer to the top of search lists. More criminal offences and stronger enforcement make almost no inroads in trolling. The question is why this happens - and the answer, across the board, is a failure to face up to the complexity, the messiness of the internet, but instead to fall into a series of classical traps based on oversimplified views of how the internet works. In this talk, Paul Bernal will explain why and how this happens - and what can be done to improve the situation.