Why focus on civil society and data?

This is the third of a three-part series leading up to the Ethics of Data in Civil Society Conference at Stanford on September 15-16.

Big data and government. Big data and business. Big data and consumers.
Why are we focused on data and civil society?

First, what is civil society? This is a question that scholars can debate for years, so let's shortcut that and use this definition - "Civil society is where we use our private resources (money, time, data) to benefit a public (someone other than ourselves))."

In many places (including the U.S), the nonprofit sector and philanthropy are often used as a synonym for civil society - this is only partly true because civil society includes all those informal networks, neighborhood groups, beach cleanups, and online volunteering efforts that we do - all those mutually beneficially, associational activities that take place all over the world (and, increasingly, all over the Internet). Yes, civil society includes these institutions, but it is much more.

So why focus on the role of data and ethics? I could do the usual economic argument here and tell you about the size of nonprofits and philanthropy, the number of people employed in the sector, the trillions of dollars in revenue and assets and so on, and those numbers are big and impressive.

But the real reason to focus on digital data and ethics runs much deeper than contributions to the GDP. It has to do with the intended role of civil society in a democracy. Here's how we've been breaking this thinking down at the Digital Civil Society Lab (Part of Stanford PACS and one of the hosts of the conference):

  1.  Civil society is essential to democracy
  2. Private action for public benefit (civil society) requires that individuals can act independently – apart from government or the marketplace – and voluntarily – free from coercion (freedom of association)
  3. Civil society also depends on the permission to speak and communicate freely, to broadcast one’s views both internally to other associational members and externally to other citizens (freedom of speech).
  4. Our world is getting more digital – networks of digitized data undergird more and more of our communications and connections and more of our analog assets are being digitized (text, video, audio, DNA, physical objects)
  5. We are in a transition period where civil society actions are adapting digital tools and practices and where digital innovators are creating tools with civil society purposes – “the social is going digital and the digital is going social.”
  6. We need to see if and how the digital environment is affecting or altering the rights and abilities of individuals to voluntarily act privately for the public good; to consider the mechanisms for valuing, owning, and donating digital assets; and consider the governance, organizational, and policy implications of this sphere.
Given the ethical dilemmas raised by digital data in all aspects of our lives, a focused inquiry on the implications for civil society is a timely complement to the research and policy considerations in business and government. 

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