On Digital Ethics: Nikki Böhler

Sophie Känzig • May 2022

Header Nikki Boehler

Data and privacy concerns us all – whether we want it to or not. Nikki Böhler, a social entrepreneur focused on the intersection of digitalisation and society and the Director of Opendata.ch and expert of the Digital Trust Label, raises awareness about data privacy through social experiments and carefully crafted questions such as: “May I look through your unlocked smartphone?”. In this interview Nikki Böhler shares who she thinks should be responsible for increasing digital literacy in Switzerland and her positive vision of the digital future she hopes to see.

The internet is a largely unregulated space and the risks of sharing personal data are often too abstract to seem like real threats. This false sense of security could have severe consequences. That’s why Nikki Böhler is on a mission to increase the level of digital literacy of our society by sparking the conversation around which trade-offs are actually worth it?

In your work you mention that “we need an informed and engaged society in order to secure a sustainable and value-based future”. What does an informed and engaged society look like?

An informed society is aware of the role that digitalisation plays in our everyday lives, our culture and our future. We all need to know: Digitalisation is a social issue. It shapes self-determination, equality, social cohesion, communication, trust and much more. It concerns us all. An engaged society is not only aware, but also active. I want as many people as possible to consciously negotiate and shape our digital transformation. We’re a community of people with a collective desire and agency over our futures. We need to decide together what goals we want to achieve with digitalisation, how these goals should be pursued, and in which areas we want to remain offline by choice.

Whose responsibility is it to increase data literacy and competency in our society?

Society, the private sector and the state share this responsibility. The broader society must be interested in digital issues and want to address them. Civil society has an important role to play here, raising awareness and stimulating discourse around digital topics. Companies must communicate transparently about their digital products and processes so that their customers can understand their practices and make informed decisions. The state must strengthen digital understanding and skills to raise and protect a resilient society.

You are part of Data Café, an initiative that trades coffee for a set of personal data. With that you make visible what people do with their data in the digital space. What do you want people to walk away with after this experience?

With this awareness campaign, we primarily want to show that data is not a topic for experts. Data concerns us all and we all have to deal with it every day. Every time we provide personal data, it’s a trade-off. We exchange data for services, benefits or products. We should make this decision as consciously as possible. We should ask ourselves: Do we know what deal we are entering into? Who is receiving our data and what do they do with it? Is it worth it? And here I would like to make it clear that sharing data can also be very positive. We can also make our data available for good purposes, such as research projects. We want people to go home with this kind of insight and reflection.

On your website you state that one of the reasons why people gave away their data was a variation of this: “Why is it important to protect my data? I have nothing to hide.“ What is your answer to this question?

It is very difficult to react to this question because people respond to very different arguments. For most, the societal perspective is too abstract. Many people don’t care enough about the loss of our digital self-determination, political manipulations or the reinforcement of bubble realities based on personal data. More people care about the risk of being manipulated or hacked based on this personal data. But even there, many people don’t care because they think they can’t be fooled anyway. What always works is asking if we can look through their phone unlocked. Funnily enough, no one wants that. This makes them realise that they probably don’t want to give away all their data after all.

If you alone held the power to create the digital space of the future. What would it look like?

I love that question. We are missing positive visions of our digital futures to aspire to. I envision a digital space of the future based on privacy, transparency, interoperability and democratic structures. Privacy will reign when personal data is no longer a commercial commodity. Personal data will belong to people and will not be for sale. We consciously decide, individually and collectively, e.g. in cooperatives, to whom we want to give our data and for what purpose. Transparency will make sure that we understand the digital systems we use. For example we will always know when we interact with an algorithm and we can look up how and based on what data these algorithms have been developed. Interoperability enables us to switch between services with one click. This creates a wider variety of offers and our interfaces are better adapted to our needs. For example, we can decide individually whether our social media is displayed to maximise diversity, joy or the content’s chronological order. Democratic structures ensure that many digital platforms are under control of the people. As in a DAO (decentralised autonomous organisation), the people who use a platform should decide on its further development.


More about Nikki Böhler and her work can be found on her website https://nikkiboehler.ch/.