On Digital Ethics: Ivana Bartoletti

Sophie Känzig • March 2022

Our democracy is under threat. Ivana Bartoletti, the internationally recognised and sought-after thought leader in privacy, data protection and responsible technology, raises awareness and speaks publicly about her concerns, which she derives from the hyper-individualised internet we use and the resulting lack of a shared reality. In our interview, the Global Chief Privacy Officer at Wipro and Visiting Policy Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, shares more of her thoughts, ideas and hopes for the future, and elaborates why she advocates for clear governance around AI.

How can we build our democracy and our future on a shared reality when there is none? Ivana Bartoletti continuously raises concerns about hyper-individualism on the internet and is a relentless advocate for more rules and regulations on data collection and sharing. She urges us to shift our focus away from the individual and think in terms of the greater whole.

In a 2020 interview, you mentioned that you see your personal data as something of value to the greater good and are in favour of sharing it. Can you say a little more about that?

We have to remember that behind every piece of data there is a human being. When we talk about data, we talk about people. And us humans don’t exist in a vacuum, we exist within a society. That’s why I believe our data should belong to all of us, and my goal is to be a contributing part of society.

The pandemic has made it very clear that our personal data is not so personal after all. If I have Covid and keep that crucial bit of information about my personal health to myself, I put others at risk. At that moment, my personal data becomes very relevant to the people around me. If my personal data has the potential to save lives, does it then still belong to me only? Our data is actually not that much about us as individuals.

Who is our personal data about then?

There is no such thing as personal data that belongs to you only. I want to move away from thinking about what happens to us as individuals when we get rejected by an algorithm based on our gender, sexual orientation, age, experience, and the like. This points to a much greater problem, one that is bigger than us as individuals.

Today, public institutions act as intermediaries and are well on their way to create frameworks, rules and regulations around data, how it can be collected, used and shared. And I am in favour of that type of control. For the average citizen it’s really hard to understand the terms and conditions of a digital service. Browsing a website should be as easy as going on vacation – you don’t need to be an aeroplane mechanic to have trust that the plane you just boarded will take you safely from point A to B. Or have you ever asked to look at protocols?

What is a question you’d urge developers to ask themselves in the beginning stages of a new AI project?

The first question we often ask ourselves today is: How much data do we need? The questions I’d like to ask first though is: Is that useful? How can we create the project in a way that is sustainable for the environment, social justice, or privacy?

What does the digital space you wish for look like?

A web that’s more for fostering democracy and supporting individuals than for advertising. I fear very much that our common base for democracy will disappear as hyper-individualised internet experiences take away our shared reality. We’ve let a lot of it go unchecked and it’s gone wild. How can we tame that?

I am imagining a space that is not about targeting individuals, but about the original promise of the web, which is about connection and democracy. I want to return to the original promise of the web. How we continue to use the internet is a choice that closely affects our democracy and society.

Learn more about Ivana Bartoletti and her work on her website here http://www.ivanabartoletti.co.uk/

You can also follow her on LinkedIn or Twitter @IvanaBartoletti.