People Power vs Surveillance Capitalism - democratising data governance

Tim Davies

Tim Davies

Beset by train strikes and snow, a small group of us gathered this week in London for a Connected Conversation session with Professor Shoshana Zuboff, author of the 2019 book ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’, and a new paper titled ‘Surveillance Capitalism or Democracy? The Death Match of Institutional Orders and the Politics of Knowledge in Our Information Civilization’. Our discussion was framed by questions of strategy: what are the most promising avenues to encourage a rethinking of how data is governed, and how different strategies of organisations and movements fit together (or not)?

Setting the challenge

The conversation opened with Shoshana outlining the limitations of current conversations about technology and democracy:

  • There are people who study privacy;
  • There are people who study disinformation;
  • There are people who study targeting and behaviour modification; and
  • There are people who study the technology-democracy connection.

All are treated as domains unto themselves.” (Paraphrased from Shoshana’s presentation)

Yet, in the ‘unified field perspective’ put forward in her new paper, Shoshana argues these are not separate silos, but are all phases in the growth and development of the institutional order of surveillance capitalism: the problems addressed in each providing the scaffolding for the ill that comes next.

The paper presents this in terms of a pyramid, in which the ‘original sin’ of the surveillance capitalist age is the (secret) commodification of human behaviour through mass tracking of digital signals about individuals. The paper argues that, over the last two decade, democratic institutions have largely absented themselves from regulating the technology field, and in the process are facing an existential threat as vertically integrated technology firms stake a claim to ‘the governance of governance’.

Pyramid diagram: Four Stages of the Surveillance Capitalist Institutional Order. Source:

Using a comparison between the US, where the average person has ‘Real Time Bidding’ (ad placement) data transmitted about them over 700 times a day, and the EU, where, with GDPR and other regulations in place, the equivalent figure is around 370, Shoshana argued that “regulation makes a difference, but not enough of a difference.”. In short, she called for a new conversation, with a step-change in how we talk about data phenomena, and what we talk about. And for that shift to be from one focussed on regulation of big tech, to an abolitionist conversation.

Exploring strategies

The discussion started by looking at two traditional ways of thinking about data governance: individual consent as gatekeeper; and government regulation. Both are limited strategies, the first by well-rehearsed weaknesses of consent in securing changes in industry practice, and the co-option of consent by industry. The second by both the political landscape, and the difficulty of making regulation specific enough to address particular desirable or unwanted impacts of data.

Instead, there is a need to address ‘the missing middle’ of data governance: giving communities affected by data a much bigger role at a collective level in managing and shaping data: being able to say no to collection, or to say what data can be used for.

Public participation plays some role in this, although, as the discussion acknowledged, to date many exercises on public participation around data policy have been working on a much smaller canvas than the society-wide challenge set out in Professor Zuboff’s work. At the same time, we recognised that in many public dialogues around data, the public do see, and express views on, the role of capitalism: concerned about the for-profit exploitation of data. We asked ourselves how, given the parameters of current public engagement activities are often set in ways that provide limited scope to follow up on public views around the commodification of data, could future activities provide pathways for participants to take concerns forward through other forms of collective action?

Drawing on Paulo Freire’s notion of conscientization (the process of “learning to perceive social, political and economic contradictions and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality”), we explored strategies supporting public understanding of data governance challenges. On the one hand, there is in society an increasingly widespread awareness of the problems of current data regimes: US studies consistently find over 65% of the public concerned about big-tech power, and put public demand for reform of big-tech at over 55%; and work in the UK demonstrates consistent public support for ‘more and better regulation of data and data-driven technologies’. On the other hand, problems around big-tech can feel too big, too abstract, or tricky to address - either in participatory or political imaginations. There is learning to be drawn from multiple movements and models: from community development, fair trade and trade justice campaigning, and participatory futures practice. In particular, we need to recognise the significant investment that industry has put into trying to obfuscate, and keep hidden, or keep out of debate, extractive data practices. Responses to this will need to both build citizen awareness, but also citizen organising, finding areas of ‘self interest’ that are tangible and specific enough to support mobilisation, while at the same time revealing bigger systemic problems to be addressed.

Discussion also examined the long absence of politics from the data and technology governance debate, and the extent to which big-P politics needs to find new urgency, and new language, to discuss good futures around data: both as a big picture, and linked to existing policy domains. In building the capacity of governments to shape the governance of data there is also scope to learn from the international development field ACES model of ‘Active Citizens and Effective States’, always keeping both the effectiveness and accountability of power in view.

Our discussions rounded off with a focus on the unfinished and open ended nature of the democratic state, and the need for new institutions. Shoshana’s paper argues for new rights, such as epistemic rights, and new institutions to enforce them. Particularly when political power can be volatile, democratic institutions, whether formed by government or outside government (such as unions) become an important part of governing data in the 21st Century.

Where next

At Connected by Data we are campaigning to put communities at the heart of data narratives, practices and policies, and giving them a powerful voice in the collection and use of data. This is just one part of the new conversation about data and technology, and we are committed to collaborating with a wide range of thinkers and actors in this space. We’re looking forward to future opportunities to deepen this dialogue in 2023.

With thanks

Thanks to Sarah Castell (Involve), Gavin Freeguard (Connected by Data Associate), Jonathan Smith and Jeni Tennison (Connected by Data), Poppy Wood (RESET), Martin Tisné (Luminate) and Aidan Peppin (Ada Lovelace Institute) for participating in the discussions. With the exception of Professor Zuboff’s introduction, the notes above have been written up under the Chatham House Rule.

Do you collect, use or share data?

We can help you build trust with your customers, clients or citizens

 Read more

Do you want data to be used in your community’s interests?

We can help you organise to ensure that data benefits your community

 Read more