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Preventing Data Authoritarianism

While digital technologies once promised a new era of emancipatory politics and socio-economic inclusion, things have not turned out quite as planned. Governments and a few powerful tech firms, operating on the false pretense that data is a resource just like oil and gold, have instead built an unprecedented new regime of social control.

NEW YORK – The revolution in information technology since the 1980s has transformed modern life, reducing the costs of collecting, storing, and sharing data, and creating an entirely new medium of communication and exchange: the Internet. By setting the stage for new forms of social, political, and economic engagement, the IT revolution, we were told, would strengthen individual autonomy and social inclusion.

Yet 40 years later, the main winners have been not the bulk of the population, but a narrow cohort of powerful entities. States and a handful of tech companies have amassed vast amounts of data and turned it into an instrument of surveillance and control – all for political and economic gain.

IT confirms the old adage that revolutions always eat their children. But the relative fragility of data controls means that it is still possible to correct past mistakes and harness the digital era’s positive potential. To do so, we must correct misconceptions about the nature of data: they are not assets but means of total control, especially when in the hands of concentrated power.