Critique of CensusLiving between the linesNotesObservations

Citizen Awakening of the Data Subject?

In the wake of controversies over the census, Facebook and others

ObservationsSaturday, I cleaned the house while listening to a lecture by sociologist Saskia Sassen on the evolving concept of citizenship in a globalizing world recorded for the Big Ideas show (mp3, video). The conference focused on the multiple micro changes that globalization causes in the definition and experience of citizenship (or of the political subjectivity, in other words).

Sassen reminds us that while we tend to experience citizenship as an unitary condition, in fact citizenship is made of a whole bundle of components. At the heart of citizenship, there is a bundle of formal rights that are recognized by State. But there are as well around many other social elements that might not derive from our connection to the State (such as the physical environment of the city vs. the countryside). So one can unbundle citizenship to look as how each of these elements emerges, changes and disappears; thus how the whole idea of citizenship is evolving as a result.

This idea brought me back to that of a citizen awakening as data subject. A theme that corresponds to a wish I expressed as early as in 1988 in my contribution to the book Human Rights in Canada: Into the 1990s and Beyond.[1] Sassen’s lecture called this question to me: are we now also witnessing this historic micro change of the addition of the status of data subject into the consciousness of contemporary citizen?The field of protection of personal information specifically used in English the term “data subject” to designate the person about whom a set of personal information is about. This designation is somewhat misleading. Indeed, as such a set of information generally describes an interpersonal relationship; such information set is about, not one, but always at least two persons, and often many more. The medical record speaks as much of the physician, the record holder and user, as of the patient, and probably of many other individuals and organizations. Still, the law and practice recognize individuals a status of “data subject” having a series of rights (knowledge, consent, access, rectification, damages, etc.) binding the information holders and users.

Since the emergence in the 1960s the institution of protection of personal information (also called information “privacy”, again another somewhat misleading term), the status of “data subject” was mostly experienced individually. Indeed, several civil society organizations did campaigns on these issues since at least as long. But this did not translate into an emergence of an awareness of the status of “data subject” as a component of the citizen’s identity of the average individual. But would recent public controversies, such as those on Facebook or U.S. and Canada censuses, not signal such an emergence? Or in other words, does the political subject progressively discover being a data subject, and vice versa? It is an intuition. It seems to me that I perceive today some change in comparison to the eighties and nineties. Can we detect some confirmation of it?

Would one of the signals of this micro change not be politicizing information practices previously considered apolitical discussion of the scope of which far exceeds the specific object?

A social media like Facebook ceases to be a hobby posing some risks: it becomes a battlefield for conflicting values and powers that extends far into the public agora, the courts, citizen activism and even the market (here, the development of alternative models in terms of information control). The stakes in this conflict go beyond the particular case of Facebook: they open on issues of control over information in all social media and social web environments, and even elsewhere.

Since this summer, the Canadian censuses no longer appear as a routine administrative process, sometimes contested by some in the margins. It becomes the object of public polarization that involves citizens, media, interest groups as well as political movements and parties. Already the debate goes beyond the issue of intrusiveness versus appropriateness of a number of census questions. The discussion extends to the very nature of the relationships that citizens, the State and the whole society should or must maintain between them.

Let me be clear. The politicization of information practices is not a new phenomenon, far from it. In the past, several mass registration or surveillance projects triggered controversies that even extended to massive demonstrations in the streets.

The change is rather the emergence of a consciousness of being a citizen of an information society in which the status of data subject gives us not only the right to at least have a say, but also a duty to acquire real individual and collective power over the information about us.

Another signal of this micro change would not also be the messing up of the status of data subject itself? This subject acts and thinks outside the framework of these legal rights that finally leaves the bulk of control to the third parties producing information. Has this subject not become often the leading producer of information about oneself? Another corollary signal, can the subject not take very opposing positions, as equally incompatible with the role pre-defined by legal protection of personal information? Civil disobedience against the census, or claim that we must submit to it willingly as a civic obligation. Wide publication and circulation on the web of information conventionally defined as “private”. Truly assuming the role of data subject, citizens become autonomous individually and organized collectively. They awake up. They talk politics.

If this micro change is real, this awakening should lead to other changes. Thus, to be continued. To accompany.


[1] «The Informational Privacy Challenge: The Technological Rule of Law», in: Human Rights in Canada: Into the 1900s and Beyond, edited by R. I. Cholewinski, Ottawa: Human Rights Research and Education Centre – University of Ottawa, 1990, 93-116.



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