The post-digital social contract (part 1 of 3)

Part 1 We can’t put the genie back, the bottles have gone

    1. The pre-digital social contract operated at a community, regional and national level. It consisted of agreements on acceptable behavior between individuals, governments, companies and communities. This social contract is broken; broken by the internet and technology, globalization, neo-liberal economics, and “the war on terror”.
    2. The post-digital social contract is being created in real time by the actions of governments and digital corporations[i] based on massive asymmetries of power, knowledge and money. The result will be a single post digital social contract for the planet.
    3. The power asymmetry is never going to go away – between government and the individual, and between digital corporations and the individual. To argue that surveillance by these powerful actors should be controlled and subject to “informed consent” is flawed.
    4. Governments will never give up their addiction[ii] to surveillance – regulations will only drive the surveillance beyond public scrutiny; a continuing succession of Chelsea Mannings and Edward Snowdens will reveal what is happening, the messengers will be shot, hands will be wrung, inquiries will inquire and nothing will change.
    5. Digital corporations complain about their coerced involvement in government surveillance as a diversion. They argue that using their service is an option and if you don’t like the value that they provide by consolidating your data, you can opt out. They will maintain this position and move jurisdictions to continue operations and avoid penalties.
    6. It will not be possible to turn back the surveillance machines, or even control them.
    7. Political leaders look to their law-making powers to establish control within their domain of digital sovereignty; this will not work. Economically it is not practical – due to the strength of global markets and supply chains. Socially it is not practical – because people are connected across the globe by interactions, conversations and virtual workspaces.
    8. The post digital social contract has three major actors who place different priorities on the critical factors in the personal data ecosystem: privacy, security & public safety, and value creation. Consider the distribution of technical and economic power, and the embedded assumptions about each actor in the global personal data ecosystem.

Governments as actors in the global personal data ecosystem

    1. There are more than 190 national governments, all of whom are regulators as well as significant collectors of personal data. This dual role creates tensions: many policy makers and political leaders want to establish controls on personal data collection, while at the same time making themselves exempt. In reality, a small number of nation states, those with sufficient political and economic power, will influence the future shape of the personal data ecosystem.
    2. The national security agencies in governments operate outside of any effective legal framework. The concept of the Deep State, a part of government uncontrolled by elected officials, is beginning to be more widely understood.[iii] While there is a legitimate rationale for spies, most state collection of personal data has a tenuous connection to national security. Legislation is not the answer to spying because spies operate beyond the law, and votes in the senate/parliament to cut budgets do not affect the deep state. By extending the ethics of the Deep State beyond the core function of espionage, governments invite scrutiny of broader surveillance activities.[iv]

Digital corporations as actors in the global personal data ecosystem

    1. Digital corporations will not change for better global outcomes, because their principal motivation is growth and profit. Digital corporations avoid the cost of externalities; while they should fund the damage of their activities, environmental degradation and the global financial crisis have shown that this will not happen.
    2. Regulation of corporations at a national level will not work – bad actors in a global personal data ecosystem will move to data havens, similar to the movement of capital since it went global.[v] Production moves to the lowest cost environment; the long-run costs in the personal data ecosystem are not labor and raw materials, but the cost of regulatory compliance.

People as actors in the global personal data ecosystem

      1. It is not possible to make such clear statements about the third group of actors – the 3 billion people in the global personal data ecosystem. Are they seduced by the sirens of free services in exchange for the monetization of their personal data? How do they balance the desire for reliable digital interaction with others and access to information against surveillance and monitoring in the name of safety and security? What about the growth of celebrity voyeurism, increased voluntary public disclosure, and reality TV?  Are people happy to be slaves to algorithms?  Are they willing to spend the time to curate their own digital footprints?
      2. In the pre-digital contract, people assumed the right to private communications. We now know (with a debt of gratitude to brave individuals who have pushed digital disclosures and often paid a high personal price) that governments and corporations are both working to actively erode that presumption.  By keeping everything, governments are better equipped to find Bad Guys, and corporations are better equipped to make profits.
      3. What is the response of thinking activists? They can use social revolution to fight back –securing personal email communications, disconnecting from the net[vi], and creating floods of false positives – but power and critical mass will doom such efforts.
      4. Trust is broken. Can trust be restored as a basis for the post-digital social contract? Can technology and behaviors be adjusted to create a trustworthy foundation for the global personal data ecosystem?


[i] “Digital Corporations” refers to major personal data collectors and traders of personal data. Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, AOL and LinkedIn can be seen as the big 8 of data collection for western consumers. There are also sites like ВКонтакте (VK), 腾讯 (tencent), 新 浪微博 (Sina Weibo) that have hundreds of millions of users. Traders in personal data are a growing segment of the personal data ecosystem, with billion dollar companies such as ChoicePoint, Acxiom and Seisint.

[ii] “I am America and I am addicted to data” was the claim in this article, but it is a sentiment that can be applied to most governments.

[iii] The very nature of the Deep State makes it impervious to description: the only people who know its true nature do not reveal what they know. The public get glimpses of the full extent of the Deep State through whistle-blowers, occasional leaks, and by historical reports on the behaviour of agencies such as the KGB and the Stasi. For more on the deep state see:

The Banality of Systemic Evil
Anatomy of the Deep State
Is there a UK Deep State?
The new heroes
Rulers without faces
Partial Disclosure

[iv] Although the National Research Council found in 2008 that “Automated identification of terrorists through data mining (or any other known methodology) is neither feasible .. nor desirable” government surveillance around the world continues to grow in capability and reach.

[v] Tax havens have grown to store more than $21 trillion since capital was globalized in the 1970s

[vi] A description of a minimal personal data footprint

First published at global village governance.

5 thoughts on “The post-digital social contract (part 1 of 3)

  1. digitrusteu March 12, 2015 / 6:46 pm

    All very true. Now the question is how are we tackling this and keep our autonomy. Or have we given up. I look forward to the following two parts.


  2. Tim Cole March 13, 2015 / 6:44 am

    As a very young journalist I was told by a very old and experienced colleague that there are only two questions you need to ask youself to determine if an article is worth reading: “So?” and “What’s in it for me?”.

    As much as I agree with most of your analysis, while reading it I was constantly asking myself those two uestions. If the Deep State exists, is that bad or good or none of the above, but just the way it is? And do I need to be worried, scared to death or what the heck?

    Personally, I don’t see a fundamental difference here between the old analog world and the emerging Digital Society. Governments overreach, corporations are ruled by greed and citizens pursue their own narrow agendas while seeking maximum pleasure. In the end, if the system is balanced at all, you get the greatest good for the greatest number. If not, the system gets adjusted, either through social reform or through violent opposition, viz. revolution.

    Reading your excellent observations, I get the vague feeling that you have given up on improving things, and I can’t follow you down that road since it leads to bleak, existentialist pessimisim. As a card-carrying optimist, I believe we will somehow muddle through, as alays: fixing something here, improving something there and, in the end, life goes on.

    So? What’s in it for me? Lots! I think this discussion is relevant (the “so?”), and I am having lots of fun kicjing these ideas around with people like you. And who knows, in the end maybe we will really have contributed to something big and better.


  3. laurencemillarnz March 16, 2015 / 7:19 am

    Thanks Tim for the comments. I am also a card-carrying optimist, although part 2 (just posted) is probably more negative than part 1, because it examines just how out of control the personal data ecosystem has become.

    I listened to an interview with Bruce Schneier on the radio this morning. He was talking about his new book – Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World – and the picture is as dark as I paint it.

    The scale of the attack on personal identity is too severe for the “muddle through” response – the government and corporate power amassed against the individual needs more.

    Kurt Vonnegut wrote, in A Man Without a Country: A Memoir Of Life In George W Bush’s America, that at age 82 he had given up on the Human Race. That was 10 years ago, and I think he would think the same if he were still with us. These are dangerous times that desperately need new thinking

    I am hoping for enlightenment from the discussions in this forum – and in Ireland in less than 2 weeks!


  4. malcolmoz March 16, 2015 / 9:29 pm

    Laurence – this blog is very thought provoking.

    The recent presentation at the IAPP Summit by Glenn Greenwald, the journalist from The Guardian who broke the Snowden revelations, puts a really interesting perspective on the impact of those revelations. See It is 30 minutes well worth watching. One of his points is that individuals will wait a long time for those in power to give up that power. Instead, he is watching the huge shift in citizen and corporate response to the revelations, ie the only defence is self defence. It may be a sad state of affairs but he does find it encouraging.

    And to paint a blacker picture, here in Australia the compromise has just been reached that will see metadata retention legislation passed by Parliament. With VERY weak protections for the individual. Journalists have just won better protection (access to metadata about them only via court adjudicated process unlike the rest of us, the great unwashed). So now I have to find a way of being perceived as a journalist under that law – I wonder if all 23 million can achieve that status as citizen-journalists in this digital world?



  5. laurencemillarnz March 17, 2015 / 9:16 am

    I am impressed with Glenn Greenwald every time I hear him speak or read his writings. I liked this panel discussion which also has a chilling piece from Edward Snowden on how the Deep State captures political leaders at around 45:00.

    It was great that CItizenFour got the Academy Award. It means a massive increase in the number of people who will see it


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