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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Column: Habeas e-Corpus

Life is increasingly digital. We spend a lot of time living online, be that through e-mail, social networking sites, research or web browsing. Even when our experiences take hold in the physical world, they are beholden to status updates, photo albums, tweets, e-mails and procrasti-reading (e.g. when you hear an artist on the radio and then spend half an hour on Wikipedia reading their life story in lieu of writing your term paper). One might conclude that our entire lives both take place and are actively archived online.

With so much of our lives digitized, there are byte-sized mountains of data generated by us, about us. It is worth considering, then, who owns this information.

Let’s start with the obvious answer: you.

Whenever you upload content (status updates, notes, e-mails, music, videos, photos, etc.) you are drawing from your own experience. For example, when I’m writing a status update on Facebook or a message on Gmail, the content I’m generating for these websites comes from my thoughts. In the same sense that I own my memories, I am entitled to the digital presentation of my memories. That I’m using the Internet to digitize my experience does little to shake that fundamental principle.

That’s kind of a philosophical abstraction, that you own your content because your content becomes this metaphysical you. There’s a more direct way of seeing your ownership: you own your content because you upload it.

Facebook, Twitter and Flickr are fine mediums for storing data, but they would have little data to store were it not for their users. Because we opt-in to produce content for social networking sites, we are the original content producers, manually uploading our lives online.

Now a not-so-obvious answer: corporations.

Corporations lay claim to your life online because they act as a vehicle for your expression. Think of it like logging your thoughts in someone else’s diary. Facebook pays for the server space and bandwidth, not to mention the thousands of employees who maintain their social networking apparatus. They own the information precisely because it is created on a website they own.

Moreover, a number of social networking sites would dispute the claim that your data is, in fact, an extension of your own experience. It would be one thing if we just uploaded content to websites. But that’s more a first step than the end of the story.

After we upload content to a social networking site, that data is mined, processed through complicated algorithms. Patterns emerge from our content, as well as from our use of the website. More complicated algorithms use both the patterns from our uploaded content and user history to create an eerily personal experience. This is why your Facebook profile shows you the same friends (the ones you happened to view recently) and why the News Feed defaults to “Top News” and shows you updates from people you tend to click on.

In this way, data that began with you is transformed and recreated for you. You could further argue that this re-patterning of data hardly constitutes an experience you own. After all the processing, the data output now resembles a complicated perception of you. In the same way that you don’t own the intimate perception your best friend has of your life, you don’t own the intimate perception Facebook built from your life.

All of this matters because content ownership is inseparable from content control. Whoever lays claim to data also gets control over the data. People championing their digital sovereignty are making a claim to a kind of Habeas e-Corpus, such that they have the last say over a host of issues, from privacy to data portability. Corporations are not as forward in claiming their ownership of your data. After all, their business hinges on consumer trust, and few would upload so much online if they got the sense social networking sites were synonymous with cyber Big Brother. But if they own the information, they, too, own the profit generated from its use. One person’s content is another person’s cash cow.

You may or may not own your own e-mails, but you can nonetheless reach RAJIV NARAYAN at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.

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