Data Societies 2020: Privacy Concerns Amid Interplay of Capitalist Forces

A series of panel discussions titled Data Societies, organised by Economic and Political Weekly and the School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, was held in Mumbai on 7 February 2020. This article summarises a few key points from the first panel discussion.

The first panel, titled "The Data Self" featured the themes of digital desires, privacy, intimacy, agency, safety, selfhood, and performance cultures online. It was chaired by Nimmi Rangaswamy, International Institute of Information Hyderabad, who has worked in the context of work automation, digital money and digital literacy. Rangaswamy opened the discussion by flagging the tension in networked, artificial intelligence-driven societies, which according to her was working around privacy issues while wanting to share the minutest details of one's personal life amidst technology companies' "hunger for data.”

Listen to the panel:

In response, Arvind Kumar Thakur, an independent communications researcher, termed social media as "antisocial media." Offering a Marxist critique of neo-liberal social media, he claimed that technology media company owners should be held responsible for creating an "algorithm of oppression" while suggesting the move to an "alternate social media." He also emphasised the need to create new deals in data, which offered "data ownership in favour of users."
Smitha Vanniyar from Point of View was the next speaker. Point of View is a “non-profit platform bringing the points of view of women into community, social, cultural and public domains through media, art and culture.” She used Facebook's facial recognition technology to highlight that the approach to personal data was "not feminist, inclusive or intersectional." She criticised privacy breaches by facial recognition technology in the name of women's safety, explaining how the technology was conceptualised for white people and within a gender binary framework. She also emphasised how an intersectional approach did not equate to the collection of even more personal data.
Rafiul Alom Rahman, founder of Queer Muslim Project (QMP), which creates visibility and awareness of Muslim issues in South Asia, spoke next. Showing glimpses of a QMP project titled “Spirit of Ramadan,” he described Instagram as a tool for subversive self-expression. Citing an incident of a young Iraqi woman's submission, he stressed the importance of negotiating the safety of the people featured while trying to get more visibility for the content. He also emphasised the need for diversifying the stories featured. "It is mostly people from the first world or people who have social capital, or the comfort of family," he said.
Bishakha Dutta, executive director of Point of View, pointed to the information asymmetry regarding personal data between users and social media companies. "It's not that we give our data, it is taken from us in a matter of speaking," she said, illustrating this point by listing all the personal information period tracker apps collect from users. She mentioned how users begin to measure themselves up against such "norm-setting" apps. She also spoke about the quantified self-movement where the individual as the quantified self believes that digital monitoring can lead to a better life, questioning the validity of that belief.
Rangaswamy then posed what she called a controversial question to panellists. She asked if the debate on privacy was elite and how would privacy be understood in a less-resourced, less privileged contexts. In response to this, Rafiul Alom Rahman pointed out how Instagram was an elite platform catering to the urban majority, contrasting it with TikTok and its diverse appeal. He mentioned that people are worried about privacy, but they are unsure about what to do about it. TikTok and its appeal to more sections of the society was brought up several times throughout the panel discussion in relation to the digital desire of an individual and their need to be seen.
Instead of the debate itself being elitist, Smita Vanniyar called the spaces where discussions about privacy happen elitist. “Who is contributing to these discussions?” she asked, mentioning how limiting them to men from elite institutions such as Indian Institutes of Technologys and Indian Institutes of Managements is not inclusive. Agreeing with Vanniyar, Bishaka Dutta also stated that the debate on privacy was not elitist. She spoke about having discussions on privacy with several less-resourced women she works with as part of Point of View and how concerned they are about it. She emphasised the need for self-reflexivity regarding the positioning of privacy in resource pressed communities.
Taking every panel member’s presentations into consideration, Rangaswamy wrapped up the debate, calling it a difficult one. Privacy concern is caught up amidst the interplay of the strong capitalist forces, human desire and the ever-evolving predatory technologies. “We’ll figure it out,” she said, ending the discussion on an optimistic note, opening the floor to a question-and-answer session with the audience.

The audio used in the podcast was recorded by Prakriti Singh and Sreya Roy Chowdhury. They are both MA students of media and cultural studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. The background track used is titled "FunkyVibes."

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