Sunday, August 10, 2014

Opting in in digital civil society

One of the defining features of civil society, the independent sector, the nonprofit and philanthropic sector or whatever you want to call that participation is voluntary. Giving your time or money is your own choice. Partaking of services offered, for the most part, is by choice (less so where government services are contracted through nonprofits, but stay with me here). One of the most common names for nonprofits is the "voluntary" sector. We are neither required by market forces nor obligated as citizens to participate. This notion of "voluntary" access is complicated when we are talking about people with few choices, those marginalized by prejudice or finances (or both). Those nonprofit organizations that serve these communities are often actively concerned with respecting the individuality and power of the people they serve - a concern that needs to be attended to every day in every action, small and large.

Voluntary participation is what allows civil society to be the home of expressive acts, protests, and the rights of minority groups in a majority-run democracy. A space, such as civil society, that is defined by our individual ability to participate voluntarily is also defined by our ability to choose not to participate. I don't have to give to causes I don't support or to organizations whose agendas I disagree with. In the language of today's tech world, the space in our democracy that allows me to "opt in" also provides me a space from which I can "opt out."

Civil society needs to take these qualities of individual power and "opting in" seriously into the digital age. Our work with digital data needs to align with our organizational values and missions.

If civil society claims a role in pursuing social justice than it has a special obligation to do two things - protect people's power to act and make sure that digital data aren't used to exacerbate existing power differentials.

Most of what is offered online, certainly by commercial operators, is "opt out." By default, your information is gathered, stored, shared, mined, spliced, diced, and minced. Anyone who has tried to cancel a Facebook account, build an app that doesn't automatically collect location information, or even make a donation without giving their email address knows that the default choices in the digital world are not "opt in." Rather, the most common default online seems to be "make it as difficult as possible to opt out."

We risk losing a great deal in a society if we lose the power to "opt in" and its "opt out" corollary. It's not just about tools like social media or text messaging - more and more policy decisions, corporate pricing choices, and infrastructural access decisions are being based on decisions made from digital data collected via remote sensors, satellite imagery, and massive datasets collected from data we leave behind us in our daily digital activities. These datasets drive decisions on pricing and access to services such as transportation, housing, child care, clinic access and so on - and they're being built with our data and without our consent (or even awareness). 

People need the power to choose. Precisely because a nonprofit may be the only service provider in an area, or the only culturally competent association, or the only option of any kind - it needs to be attentive to the power arrangements it puts in place, seeks to mitigate, or actively fights against.

How data are collected, analyzed, stored, shared, secured, or destroyed are acts of power. Commercial firms (for the most part) have made it clear that when it comes to digital data, they hold the power. I'm willing to bet you didn't read the Terms of Service for that app or website before you logged in, but that's what they say.

Civil society needs to attend to the expressions of power embedded in digital data. It's not just how the sector uses digital data, but how digital data is used to define the sector.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

You’re raising very important questions here. They make me a little uncomfortable, and should make all of us in the social sector uncomfortable. It’s interesting to think about whether the ethics for social sector organizations should be any different than they are for the business sector, and by that I don’t necessarily mean that nonprofits should collect and use data with no real opportunity for consent the way that many for-profit enterprises do, as you raise here. Rather, if we expect civil society to respect the need for consent, presumably we also should expect more of market enterprises, expect them to respect it as well? On the other hand, as you point out, “opt out” isn’t a real option provided by many market enterprises, or by government, for that matter. So long as that is the case, are civil society organizations trying to cure important disparities and needs competing with one hand tied behind their back?
The power imbalance between users and enterprises (market, social sector or government) is important to recognize, but I’ve wondered whether social sector organizations need to take better advantage of data tools to push information to users who could benefit from it (including the kind of data gathering and analysis tools you mention in your prior post about wealth managers and satellite imagery), and in fact whether they have a moral obligation to seriously consider using those tools to help alleviate poverty or bring resources and options to vulnerable people. I worry if I’ve crossed an ethical line there, but I do think those of us in the social sector have a responsibility to take seriously the potential good that could come from nonprofits using those tools. (For more, see, and
For example, let’s consider the purchase of data about consumers. If it’s available, and if it is not illegal to buy it, should nonprofits consider buying it and then use it to reach people who may be in need? At that point, when they make contact, they could observe the ethics of “opt in” consent, and I’d agree they should. But does the use of that data to reach the person to ask their consent violate some ethical rules? And should our expectation of following those ethical rules be weaker for market enterprises than for social sector organizations? I’ll be very interested to follow the discussion at the Ethics of Data in Civil Society conference you recommended.