By Frans van der Reep and Peter van der Heuvel, January 13th 2016
The digital world seems inevitable; we do no longer have the choice but to sign up. Our off-line world is getting smaller and we are (willingly) handing over our off-line autonomy. Keeping this in mind, it is time to legally pin down our right to an off-line life.
The off-line world is slowly being encapsulated by the online world. If you do not carry a bankcard or smartphone in the city of Rotterdam, you will have a hard time finding a parking spot in many locations in the city centre. The Belastingdienst (Tax authority) and UWV (National Insurance) send the majority of their clients their messages strictly digitally. New cars contain eCall, an alarm system which contacts 911 automatically in case of a severe accident. The large car producers, now including Google and Apple, are waiting at the front of the line, ready to exploit these big data sets. The societal consequences of all these rapid changes are unclear, not thought through and not investigated. Even the ownership of these datasets has not been formally arranged. As an individual, do you want an eCall installed in your body; do the politicians have anything to say about this decision, and who will finally decide? Can you be forced to have one?
If you are not with us, you’re out
If you download any arbitrary app nowadays, it almost always entails that you grant access to your contact list, your identity and your location etc. Our off-line world is getting smaller and we are handing over our offline autonomy. We willingly accept the newest tech-toys without thinking through what the consequences might be. Let alone the give a thought about the bigger picture that looms behind it. The government is letting this happen. We are witness to ideology at work: if you are not participating, you do no longer count: ‘Get in or get lost’.
In the meantime software still does not have legal product liability and the formal position of all the bits and bytes of information flying through the air has not been taken care of. Why not? By the way, the digital world is also counting out many people. What if shopping, public transport or making appointments at the hospital is no longer possible without internet? How often does that happen nowadays in the Western world? What if daily life becomes unliveable without internet –how vulnerable will you become?
Tech companies determine more and more the societal order
The technologies are self-reinforcing; they are in the hands of relatively few companies and they have a large impact on our personal lives. Under a layer of varnish of the enlargement of personal autonomy they centralise power, wealth and redistribute money to a small group of individuals and companies. They determine in an ever increasing manner the societal order. The middle class, carrier of democracy, has been put under pressure. The state uses the new technological possibilities to track our behaviour and communication – civilians have become suspects in anticipation of the crimes.
Tech companies are not responsible for the ins and outs of society, but the government is. However, they are, in the guise of smart cities, participating and force the citizen to digital communication. The citizen however, has not been queried and is powerless to change it. This although there are is more and more information that smartphones create addictions e.g. as they trigger dopamine shots in our brains.
The tech side, the corporations, is well-organised, has a large budget and can apply powerful l marketing strategies. Above all, they play the game well by connecting technology to fun and comfort. The anthropological, ethical and legal sides of this issue – what is this technological progress doing with society – is compartmentalised and there is no platform for cooperation between parties. But social physics and big data are starting to determine the scenery of our lives. We are not against technology or the digital world, however, we do feel that more thought has to be put into the societal effects and consequences.
We do not want to forcibly be sucked into the internet
The legal context to withdraw ourselves from these developments and to protect ourselves from them deserves more attention. Luckily, recently a Dutch judge ruled that you still have to be able to pay in cash at the municipality. The government is legally requiring every citizen to subject themselves to the digital world (e-mail, digital government, digital window), but fails to facilitate him to participate all the way; for example by scaling up access to free eRecognition technology so we can truly surf the web safely. None of that is happening. The government is therefore infringing on the social contract: she is mandating the citizen to conform without facilitating the boundary conditions necessary for implementation. To the High Councils Of State – the council of state, ombudsman and privacy watchdog – who are formulating these doubts, no one is really listening.
We advocate therefore a legal right to an analogue, off-line life until more research has been done and more clarity provided about the societal consequences of the internet and new tech. We want the right to choose between off-line and on-line solutions. We do not want to be forced by the government and technology and to be sucked into the internet. We want a government who not only pushes us towards a digital world, but also creates the boundary conditions so we, the citizens , can do so safely. We want a government who takes his responsibility instead of handing us over on a platter to the tech companies, as is happening right now.