icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an  ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.

Chronological Index | Subject Index

The digital ethics jigsaw - or is it just a blob?

A second look at the digital slavery issue, with six rules of self-defence

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2019). The digital ethics jigsaw - or is it just a blob? A second look at the digital slavery issue, with six rules of self-defence. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 8.12 (December).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2019). The digital ethics jigsaw - or is it just a blob? A second look at the digital slavery issue, with six rules of self-defence. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 8.12 (December).

This is how I have lived my entire life: a series of accidents, but truth is, I was reasonably well prepared for each.
Don Norman

London, 16 December - With 2019 coming to an end, I want to honour the promise I started writing about digital slavery in icm2re 8.1, It's the business model, stupid! About the invention of digital slavery: I said I would write about other two powerful ideas to look at the issue of digital slavery, namely surveillance capitalism and the right of (or to) personality.

The delay has not been useless. In other articles this year I have had the opportunity to consider the disappearance of paid jobs under a number of other perspectives: gender and other invisible causes of inequality, standards of behaviours in people and knowledge management, the impact of human rights on cybersecurity and the lack of it, the unintended consequences of policy making, the power of health literacy and information sharing for those who may feel hopeless due to ageing, chronic illnesses or obsolescence of their know-how, the weakness of social and ethical directions in computer science and engineering.

In sum, the causes and pathways that nudge masses of individuals and groups into unpaid work and various forms of free labour are nowadays innumerable - and not always necessarily disgraceful or solely caused by machine learning developments: unpaid work in domestic and charitable settings remains one of the most invaluable sources of wellbeing in modern society in spite of being unaccountable for GDP purposes.

For an increasing majority of people over 50 with an expectation of earnings, the digital economy has become an uncomfortable and unproductive, when not harassing, nonsensical blob to which we are all invited, nudged or required to contribute for free or in exchange for emotional rewards or welfare benefits.

The dominant narratives to look at the issues, for the time being, spiral up from ethical and industrial policy stances that were first elaborated in the 1970 and culminated in an over-optimistic view (even when the approach is extremely worried or hyper-critical) of the transformative role of the information and communication technologies (the Mac Bride report).

The public reflection on the challenges posed by artificial intelligence has been recently enriched in the UK by reports published by the House of Lord and the RUSI, containing interesting warnings about design and governance of new AI developments. But, all in all, there is still a general, fundamental state of numbness and denial about the dynamics that pervade the digital job market. These create social risks of massive unemployment and underemployment, not documented through official statistics.

Digital slavery seems to me emerging as a silent tragedy: as civilised individuals and societies of the 21st Century, we should decide what we want to make from the Internet and the ICT era. Digital slavery creates new classes of poor people, independently from levels of education, skills and work experience, it increases inequalities and multiplies social fractures and divisions, copying models of exploitation of workers from the worst of the industrial world organisations, the mega-factories I wrote about in the former article (icm2re 8.11, A stich in time save nine) or even from pre-industrial societies.

Above all, it destabilises traditions, interactions, cultural ties, social norms, behaviours that are vital for the individual, for the continuity of wellbeing of entire families and communities and for political participation. It should be addressed with proper policies.

Surveillance capitalism... really?

The primary business model of the Internet is built on mass surveillance, wrote Bruce Schneier back in 2013 in "Bloomberg View" (quoted by Couldry and Yu, 2018), before Zuboff elaborated the idea even further. Many other authors have been making similar statements for the last twenty years, from all sorts of backgrounds. So what? Does it really work? It is sustainable? For whom? For how long? Where is going to lead us?

In her recent book (Zuboff, 2019), Shoshana Zuboff describes internet markets as a ubiquitous networked institutional regime that records, modifies, and commodifies everyday experience from toasters to bodies, communication to thought, all with a view to establishing new pathways to monetization and profit, making contract law useless, creating a fictitious world with overarching powers on individuals' free will, learning processes, initiatives, autonomy.

She calls this post-panopticon hell "Big Other" and states that unlike the centralized power of mass society, there is no escape from Big Other. There is no place to be where the Other is not. This is of course a literary image, totally fictitious.

Useful to raise awareness and wake up political philosophers, the idea of the digital economy as surveillance capitalism carries a very ideological and arguable vision: it has huge intellectual density and literary appeal but it does not contain any actual direction for change. Zuboff's approach to the digital economy is, in fact, affected by what I called the fixity of things. Since her major, monumentally relevant and pioneering research work (In the age of the smart machine: the future of power and work, 1984) she does not seem to have realised that ICT is not an enemy but a product of human creativity. She does not consider that ICT literacies and computer skills can play a part in making audiences accomplices of major forces of the digital economy for quite a short timespan. With few exceptions, audiences move forward and leave any engineered pattern behind, baffling those who felt they had found a sustainable business model.

The digital economy consists of incredibly cohesive but at the same time very mutable small worlds that quickly disappear: data are left behind, with no concern for the debris they may cause in the future. Whilst the financial wealth and ownership interlocks remain concentrated, the digital data, networks, contents and relationships millions of everyday people depends on are extremely precarious and volatile.

And again, Zuboff notices that human autonomy is irrelevant and the lived experience of psychological self-determination is a cruel illusion. [...] In the logic of surveillance capitalism there are no individuals, only the world-spanning organism and all the tiniest elements within it . She fails to acknowledge that nobody asks people to persistently share their personal details with public and private controllers but in limited circumstances: the world-spanning organism of surveillance capitalism is made of sand and mirrors nobody can safely walk on for long without drawing into errors, mistakes, frauds.

Zuboff's vision of surveillance capitalism looks like a nightmare: hopelessness, depression, unfitness and despair. But this is a nightmare that gets easily scattered when people redefine or better understand their priorities. Off grid, the panopticon disappears. To be subject to surveillance capitalism or exploited for data colonialism (another instrumental concept, brilliantly defined by Nick Couldry and Ulise Mejias) is irrelevant to the person needing and wanting to earn a living.

It is true that at present, the internet economy does not give ordinary people too much freedom from coercive and stereotyped digital user profiles and predictable social interactions, designed (badly and roughly) to maximise the profits of the platforms, not for the realisation of individuals' goals and economic freedom.

Couldry highlights the narrative that makes mass surveillance through the internet infrastructure morally and culturally acceptable: this is the idea of being transformative for the human race , up to the point that it triggers a sort of normalisation of surveillance - again, it is the long wave of MacBride self-perpetuating new world order that reigns upon us.

The last is the implicit baselined assumption in projects sponsored by corporate, fundraising or philanthropists actors that want to investigate digital behaviours and often sound to me a totally nonsensical waste of energy and money - I refer, for instance, to a "Human Project" [sic, I would call it inhuman instead] supported by the Kavli Foundation, based on the idea of tracking and measuring the lives of about 10,000 New York City residents from 2500 households in order to quantify the human condition for the first time ever.

In sum, the concept of surveillance capitalism is an extraordinarily interesting abstraction that documents the apprehension of being constantly exposed to algorithms influence and manipulation, but it does not help to define policies for the gig economy. The idea of surveillance capitalism does not move the ability to design effective industrial policies for the digital age from a sort polarisation between what Umberto Eco called in the 1970s the two categories of Apocalittici and Integrati (these coagulate intellectuals around two opposite stereotyped arguments about technologies of information and communications, the role of intellectuals in society and how to elaborate ICT and media policies).

The right of personality

If only time can tell if the idea of surveillance capitalism will eventually inspire any pragmatical policy idea, the digital relevance of the concept of personality rights seems here to stay and could be worked out by information designers, engineers, data architect or software developers and anybody else dealing with platforms designs and personal data straightaway.

Closed to or including copyright and privacy - depending on the traditional studies and approaches dominant in different jurisdictions - the concept of personality rights does not emerge from internet studies (in this last field, on the contrary, there are efforts towards legitimisation of algorithmic inferences seen as a way to circumvent obligations posed by the GDPR).

The right to personality is nonetheless very pertinent to the digital slavery debate and it applies as well to other themes and issues of the digital economy, such as ethical approaches to online advertising and policing.

American jurists distinguish three different "spheres" of personality with different levels of potential legal protection: the social sphere and the private sphere are subject to proportional limitation, but the intimacy sphere, extending to matters of personal sexuality, illness, and physical condition, is closely connected to human dignity and is inviolable they say (Stacey, 2019).

It seems a straightforward consideration that puts other legalese definitions at the back of the queue. However, as the title of a researcher's article noted back in 2003 documenting 50 years of publicity rights in the United States and the never ending hassle with intellectual property and personality rights in Europe (Klink, 2003), there are some practical negative consequences of not having a standard and univocal definition of personality rights in international law: contract law cannot easily be implemented and adapted it across the sectors and the jurisdictions, fuelling pessimistic, self reinforcing views on the rule of law for the digital economy (as the same quoted Zuboff's).

Cultural and geographical variations and distinctions do make a difference for the Courts and the jurists. However, they are not terribly relevant for the purpose of information and platforms design or information governance: the idea of a "right of" or a "right to" inviolable privacy for one's own personal data is widely accepted in the West and it has reached commonly accepted definitions with the GDPR.

There is a considerable degree of intellectual and juristic disagreement on the various details of what to include in one or the other sphere of personality rights, as explained by an Italian professor of law, Giorgio Resta, in various occasions. But perhaps the notion of consent can help sorting out the doubts and controversies arising from different definitions or contexts, fostering some confluence towards more workable and practical standards that are not far away from the legal departments of big tech corporations and platforms.

Resta's idea of a "personhood" domain seems a convincing umbrella: it can accommodate under the same roof both the notion of privacy and the notion of personality he has thoroughly reviewed (correcting the commonly accepted Wikipedia definition he dislikes).

Another researcher, Johann Neethling points to the fact that personality rights (right to life, right to physical integrity, right to physical liberty, right to reputation, right to dignity, right to feelings, right to privacy, right to identity) exists independently of any legal recognition: in my view, this should exactly be among the strong foundations needed to build up reliable and sustainable business and data models. It should be possible to respect personality rights in all circumstances, even recognising that privacy can be seen under different lights in the context of torts and under different conflicting jurisdictions.

Such typology can lead to the recognition that a bifold "right to personality" exists also in specific scientific or generalist domains pervaded by digital technologies, like genomic medicine or sharing of pictures through social media (first, the right to publicity "to keep one's image and likeness from being commercially exploited without permission or contractual compensation"; and secondly, the right of privacy or, "the right to be left alone and not represent one's personality publicly without permission", Bains, 2018).

Many scholars in recent years have noted that in the UK the matter of personality rights is usually dealt with under different labels of privacy and defamation: unless there are issues of torts (damages claims) involved, it tends to be dismissed as trivial because there is a widespread interest in maintaining the status quo of what if known as celebrity culture. Individuals in the UK, more than in continental Europe, are granted a piece-meal type of protection, under the framework of the existing law of trade mark, registered design, copyright, an extension of the tort of passing-off and defamation but none of these means of protection adequately serves to defend a person's personality features.

The right of personality has been protected under the "right of publicity" in the United States for well over 50 years - Savan Bains continues from the columns of "Entertainment Law Review" - yet the United Kingdom still remains sceptical of creating monopoly rights in one's personality and it is severely lagging behind in its approach. The concept of an individual's personality or persona has been defined by Frazer as the "indicia of identity". Narrowest interpretation of the "indicia of identity" consists of the name, likeness and voice of a natural person. The "personality right" or "right of publicity" (as it is also commonly known as) therefore allows celebrities to protect their "indicia of identity" by providing them with: "the right to control and profit from the commercial use of one's name, image, likeness, etc, and prevent unauthorized appropriation of the same for commercial purposes".

While a review of the UK law has been repeatedly called, because the Law provides no coherent or consistent protection of a celebrity's personality or image and such issues of identity and personality are impacting everybody using the internet in their working life, not just celebrities or the Royal Family, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has confirmed in various occasions that in the context of the digital media a broad interpretation of Article 8(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is appropriate in that: the original text provides that 'everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence'. Considered the nature of the digital environments, this right extends to notions of personal integrity, free development of personality and reputation.

Personality rights are not actually embedded in the design of digital platforms or contracts of employment. In spite of being recognised, with huge variations, in the law, personality rights are simply unaccessible and not enforceable for the majority of digital workers at the moment, all around the world.

Also, for those who do not have access to the legal system and feel their first priority is to put food on the table, the right to personality may sound irrelevant.

But, I believe, it is just a matter of time. Personality right could and should become the key lever for individuals, families, communities, small business to demand and develop different business models for the digital economy in that preventing and excluding many social risks, including the risk of pushing thousands if not million of people into digital slavery pathways.


The reality of our digital and for many progressively jobless economy is that to exit the trap of digital slavery the clever digital citizen, either employed or not, either working or not, paid or unpaid, often needs to go off-grid. Time management is possibly the most important skill ever.

How long before disconnections will become a common reaction to overwhelming surveillance and abuse of personality rights? what does it take for a U-turn in the way in which platforms treat their users, particularly for work-related purposes?

63% of Americans know that cookies are used by websites to track users' visits and browsing habits. Also, 59% of Americans know that advertising is the largest source of revenue for many social media platforms (Source: Pew, 2019).

There is space for optimism in that: concerns about privacy and tranquillity of one's digital life are on the rise with over 40% of Americans fed up about various forms of online harassment they have personally experienced. These are seen as endemic.

It's not trivial to predict that it will not be long before the pressure to commoditise people time and interests online will ease. The gamification trend will be confined into a specific sector. More respectful ways to engage with audiences will emerge, accepting there are also health and safety and productivity problems linked to the right to personality.

Effective ways to protect the self from the digital blobs and digital slavery risks include the following six rules of self-defence:

1) make yourself useless to the platforms: you can construct a version of your data the transactional value of which will be useful only to you and at a given moment in time or be openly conflicting with any other redacted, edited, manipulated representation of yourself;

2) delete, delete and delete data you do not need or you cannot control the use of - or, on the contrary, exploit their abundance for your own marketing (see 3);

3) articulate your marketing strategies around the confusing abundance of similar online identities and not on the unicity of your value proposition, unless you have strong contractual protection and financial incentives for it;

4) aggregation of all your data and different personalities traits or conflicting identities can be utterly nonsense for the purpose of online micro-targeting, so there is no actual reason for concerns: it is only you (hopefully!) who knows if your data are true, pseudo-true, untrue, or a complete fake.

5) You do not really have to share any personal information online. If it is mandatory to do so in order to buy goods and access to services, you can alway delete the account as soon as you do not need it any further.

6) If anybody from a platform customer service office notes you are trying to play the system, ask when did you sign a contract for providing your services for free or a contract for employment for free? or where is the button to delete the account and ensure the erasure of your data.


Bains, S. (2007), Personality rights: should the UK grant celebrities a proprietary right in their personality? Entertainment Law Review, 18(5), 165-169. Retrieved from http://uk.practicallaw.thomsonreuters.com/WestlawUk/Journals/Publications/Entertainment-Law-Review?contextData=(sc.Search)

Couldry, N. and Mejias, U. A. (2019). Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject. Television & New Media, 20(4), 336–349. Retrieved from http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/89511/

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Pew (2019). Americans and Privacy: Concerned, Confused and Feeling Lack of Control Over Their Personal Information. Pew Research Center, 15 November 2019. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2019/11/15/americans-and-privacy-concerned-confused-and-feeling-lack-of-control-over-their-personal-information/

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