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Op-ed: "Personal data and companies, the urgent need for ethics" (Le Quotidien de l'Art)

By Laure Kaltenbach, General manager and Olivier Le Guay, Editorial manager of the think tank Forum d’Avignon – culture, economy, innovation

Article previously published in french in le Quotidien de l'Art

From Sony to Ashley Madison, from Instagram to Spotify, not a day goes by without the personal data hunting and the breaches in intellectual property, that have now turned into an activity and the objective of an unbounded and unaware war, shaking up acutely – and sometimes dramatically – the identity or the creation of private and legal entities. For lack of a common and universal ethical framework, both regulation and technique are always behind. The stake is cultural as remembered by the theme of the 4th Meetings of the Forum d’Avignon Ruhr in Essen on September 22nd and 23rd 2015: “Culture is digital, digital is culture”.

Frontiers and legal framework unsuitable to the digital space-time. Whether it be the States that claim the right to collect and request everything, or the companies that corner the personal data of their customers, all are showing unfettered imagination, although it lacks transparency. Unfortunately, cultural companies are not left behind: Instagram steps into the appropriation of data and deposited works on the social network of its parent company Facebook and lets its users exhibit in galleries and sell without authorization pictures available on its network, as related by the Washington Post on May 25th, 2015. Spotify’s appetite is comparable as it took advantage of the actualization of its conditions of use to claim the ability to collect personal data from the applications on the devices of their customers, through the sensor system, geolocalization, voice, photographs, contacts… is nothing to be sniffed at to reinforce the profiling of the user experience of its listeners? Facing this summer’s uproar on the social networks, the streaming service commits to propose “an explicit demand before using the camera or GPS” and excuses, even if it undermined its customers’ confidence.

Technical answers are drafted, especially ‘privacy by design’ that Marc Mossé, Director of Legal and Public Affairs at Microsoft France, defines as the “integration in the product of the protection of personal data”, accompanied by a code of good conduct. Other directions are under consideration such as the visualization of the prints left after our digital route proposed by Tictrac, or, more radically, the sale of our data to companies via the online platform Datawallet or making Facebook or Google’s services paying in exchange for the systematic encryption of preferences and privacy, as proposed by the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci.

A legal and regulatory framework is more than ever necessary. Three important signals: the discussions on the European regulation on the protection of personal data are in their final phase in the perspective of an adoption in the end of 2015. This text provides, among others, for the reinforcement of the right to oblivion and the erasure of European citizens’ data, the establishment of a unique regulation common to the whole EU with the creation of a competent “one-stop-shop” and an hardening of the penalties applicable by the legal and administrative authorities in case of the non respect of the rules related to personal data… The agreement between the United-States and the EU allows going to the American court in case of abuse regarding the use of personal data, was approved by the president, and now needs to be validated by the Congress. Meanwhile, according to Bruno Perrin, Partner at EY: “companies understand that a data ethics represents a true competitive advantage by organizing to preserve their digital sovereignty”, “while elaborating data exploitation policies truly respectful of their customers, which is a fundamental basis for trust” completes Mats Carduner, co-founder and CEO of fifty-five, the data agency.

Universal principles must be shared to anticipate the unthinkable aspects of technique. This is the direction and ambition of the Preliminary declaration of the digital human rights ( of the Forum d’Avignon, supported by 200 international personalities and inspired from the model of Unesco’s universal declaration on the human genome – that promotes particularly the balance between the protection of individuals and the valorization of data, the development of research and the respect of individuals. Without shared common principles, the scenario of a data driven society – and not helped by data – is already written. The 10th anniversary of Unesco’s convention on cultural diversity in November 2015 must be the opportunity to start concretely this ambition. It is up to the States, the citizens and the companies to support it. Culture is digital, digital is culture, as the Forum d’Avignon Ruhr reminds it.