We’re living in a time where our everyday lives revolve around digital technology. It’s a new world for us as both citizens and consumers, and we shouldn’t ignore the role that these new digital technologies are having on our lives. Data is itself valuable, especially our personal data, a matter which was highlighted by the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The knowledge of how big tech-companies use our personal data and the issue of what regulations and principals uphold our rights has never been so pressing and important. The Association of Foreign Affairs in Lund had the opportunity to do an exclusive interview with Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner for Competition, which gave us an insight on the new world of data privacy, and how it relates to our personal data. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
Why is it important for individuals to know the potential risks on how their data is used?
“It’s very fundamental that we have the right to privacy, that you can be yourself. It is no one’s business what you do, and what you don’t do, where we are, what we do, what we are looking for and how we pay, who we are with. Those are data and they are no one’s business unless we consent to somebody knowing about it and it is very fundamental, its not very techy or anything.”
Since Vestager took office in 2014, she has been emphasising the EU’s responsibility concerning peoples digitals rights. In an announcement in Slush she stated, that the EU have to make sure people have the same protection in the digital world as anywhere else. In todays world we find digital technology wherever we look, and we are constantly asked to sign into platforms provided by big tech companies such as Google or Facebook.
Vestager often highlights the tech companies’ responsibilities, but what are the individual’s responsibilities when they sign up as users/members to the different tech companies?
“The first one is of course to be knowledgeable and critical about what we sign up to, and maybe to be more curious. Because I don’t think that a convenient tech-life is the same as a good tech-life. I think it is a great idea to test new things and to not allow yourself to be locked in, and to make sure that you are multihomed. Otherwise, it becomes very difficult to exercise your rights if you all of a sudden accept to be in one universe. The second thing is to be present in our physical world; I think it’s very important to not allow the digital world to completely imperialize our physical world and how we are when we are together.”
Don’t you think its difficult today being a curious user in the tech-universe when the big tech companies have monopoly power?
“No, you know I use four different search engines, Corn, Clicks, Bing and DuckDuckGo and they give me different results than a Google-search would do, and that I find interesting. I change between them, doing a little bit of this and little bit of that, and I don’t have the same mail-account as my search browser. And you know what, compared to sort of really tech-wise people I’m old school [laughs warmly]. In this particular market its not given that the big guy is the most innovative one. Especially if you take into consideration that a lot of the services that we use are invented by young men and in that perspective they don’t represent our universe.”
Do you think laziness could be a factor of young users’ low curiosity?
“I think convenience is everything.”
For a student it’s quite convenient going to Google Scholar and finding academic articles, but maybe one should use other search engines, and based on Vestager’s previous answer she got different results form different search engines, which strengthens the importance of being open and curious to this process.
“I definitely think one should be more open to it and I also think that one has to be open to things that are slower, […] and of course in particular when you’re in a mode of studying that you change between digital learning motor and reading things by yourself and discussing and developing directly with other people. I think humans will always be superior to any kind of machine, but that of course is only true if you stay human and I think the more you fear the machine the more human you should become”.
What is your perception on how your personal data is being used?
“Well, the problem is that I’m very happy that I know I own my data, I’m very happy that I have digital citizens rights with the GDPR. My frustration is that, I don’t really know how to exercise my rights. Because very often I take the time to read terms and conditions, I say thanks but no thanks. When I used search engines or browsers that blocks for tracking I get the frustration that I see how much tracking I would have been exposed to. I still think that we are in some sort of very early days when it comes to actually exercising digital rights because its so time consuming, and we don’t have efficient, independent digital assistance that will remember how you would want to have your digital life and will make sure that every setting is set up according to that.