If political advertising is getting smarter, should we too?

Our data is something that we do and should care about. People feel disempowered by a lack of transparency in how online products and services operate. 89% want clearer terms and conditions, half would like to know how their data is used but can’t find out.

So thank goodness for GDPR right?

Who’d have thought we’d cared so much about this little EU acronym so much? That it would be trending on Twitter and cluttering up our inboxes and turned into jokes and memes?

It really is at the forefront of the general public’s consciousness at the moment. But just because we’re talking about it, do we really understand what it means and how we are affected?

Our People, Power and Technology research into the nation’s digital understanding — that’s knowing the implications of the internet, as opposed to having digital skills per se, being able to cope, not code — found the nation currently has low levels of understanding. Key aspects of the internet remain a mystery for many — from how platforms gather and use our data to how the information we leave behind online allows companies to vary the prices we pay.

As our CEO, Rachel Coldicutt, has previously written about, the information rights afforded to us by GDPR will be “meaningless unless the public is in a position to exercise them.” Without new codes of practice for design and consent in the technology industry, so that products and services do the hard work to be understandable, citizens will remain at the bottom of the digital food chain.

Released today, the quirky drama-documentary on data and democracy, Mind-Reading Algorithms are Stealing our Democracy, helps to raise awareness that data is not only being used to serve you ads about your favourite food but also to persuade you and predict how you might vote!

Through a combination of expert interviews and good old-fashioned alien invasion melodrama, it’s an accessible story, that in just 10 minutes informs audiences about how online marketing works and how it could be affecting our democracy. It helps to lift the lid on what’s really been going on with our data, on social media and with Cambridge Analytica. It’s for everyone, even if you have heard about it and think you know it all.

The film was previewed at Lush Studio Soho on Tuesday evening and included a panel Q&A, hosted by Wired’s Matt Reynolds, with our CEO, Rachel Coldicutt, Privacy International’s Data Programme Lead, Frederike Kaltheuner and Lee Brown, one of the actors and Adam Ay, the film’s director. One of the questions it raised was whether we, as citizens, should be taking steps to change our online behaviour as a result of the revelations.

There are certainly things that we can do to defend ourselves against these data-guzzling aliens. We have included some tips and examples of organisations, in our latest People, Power and Technology report, that help people to more effectively navigate the online world. One such example is the Tactical Technology Collective’s Data Detox Kit which provides users with an 8-day service to get them on their way to “a healthier and more in-control digital self”. The kit takes them through their online profiles and identities, and offers ways to change social media and online services use.

We are also compiling such examples in a resources directory simply because we know there are so many out there! We encourage you to add any good ones you’ve come across. This means that collectively, we are empowering ourselves, as citizens, in our fight back against those data guzzling aliens.

But whilst it is important that we are equipped with the tools to be able to take control of our digital life and the data detox kit is a great example, it should not be the individual’s responsibility.

Illustration by Elin Matilda Andersson

Those who have been emailing us everyday, the social media platforms we engage with everyday, the producers of the various digital products and devices that collect data about us everyday, have a responsibility to make understandability the building block of everyone’s digital experience.

And government has a responsibility to create and enforce standards of transparency and accountability for digital products and services.

And then these actions should then be supported with public education to help close the understanding gap.

Is GDPR going to do enough to improve our digital understanding?

GDPR shouldn’t distract us from the need for a broader conversation, particularly about the regulation of digital technologies. We’re doing a lot of work on this at the moment, having written up a paper making the case for an independent internet regulator. We appreciate the expert support and input we had into this and welcome further input into the next phase of this work which explores how we can put the principles we describe into practice. Please send us your contributions to [email protected].

If political advertising is getting smarter, should we too? was originally published in Doteveryone on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.