The role of geography in personal data sharing
December 9, 2013

The Internet is often viewed as a first-ever ‘planetary machine’. Its scale and extend is vast and it has enabled digital platforms available anywhere. Some obvious examples are Facebook’s global social network, Wikipedia’s platform for collaborative peer production.

The scale and vastness of the Internet combined with the continued move to digital systems have led to a call for a Charter for Personal Data on the global stage to define the rights of individuals to their data. For companies, personal data is an economic resource more than anything else.

Revelations of large-scale information collection by government agencies in 2013 have put a damper on the uncritical digital capture of everyday activities through digital platforms.

In December 2013, a number of American Internet companies begun to make a push for a charter on personal data by calling on governments to address the permissions for collection and processing of personal data (Link to open letter).

“The ability of data to flow or be accessed across borders is essential to a robust 21st century global economy. Governments should permit the transfer of data and should not inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country. Governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally.”

In a position paper at Ubicomp’12, we reviewed the various data systems in ownership by different stakeholders in society. We encourage to consider the role of local data commons to challenge some of the location-agnostic nature of most platforms at the time. It relates to a bigger question extent and that’s the one related to how global is the Internet as a planetary machine really?

Possibly a charter for personal data could include requirements to define mechanisms for data sharing in terms of location and proximities. At UbiComp’12 there was a lot of debate whether that actually would be a good thing.

The Internet’s superpower lies in the capacity to support global connectedness, which needs to be supported. However, recent events also demonstrate that globally operating Internet providers might wish to re-thinking their approach to data governance. While companies should be able to operate where they choose, different parts of the globe feature different ethics and expectations to one’s personal data. Transparent standards for sharing our data would certainly beneficial.

Perhaps physical geography will return to play an implicit role in the debate on personal data sharing, through different approaches taken by national governments.