Un projet Labex Arts H2H
en /fr
2012 - 2016

Code, Informational Capitalism, and the Regulation of Privacy
By Johnathan Foster

University of Sheffield


It is a truism to say that our contemporary interactions are typically conducted via mediated spaces, many of them via business platforms such as Google, Facebook and the like. However the regulation and use of these platforms have raised widespread privacy concerns. Based on an analysis of forty interviews into the state of privacy in contemporary society, this paper argues that privacy concerns are rooted in a tension between human agency on the one hand, and the self-­executing code of the platforms of the digital economy on the other. In Code Version 2.0 Lessig points to four modalities by which the actions of an agent (whether a person or an organization) are regulated: laws, social norms, the market, and architecture. In their execution these four modalities can either constrain or enable an agent’s actions. Take for example the regulation of personally identifiable information (PII). On the one hand organizations’ handling of PII is subject in the UK to the provisions of the Data Protection Act, along with further articles where applicable from European law. On the other hand contemporary social norms are persuading individuals that the sharing and disclosure of personal information is the social norm, deviation from which is considered abnormal. The market also regulates the sharing of PII, for both good reasons (e.g. fines are imposed for unsolicited and unwarranted data sharing or for the occurrence of data breaches due to either human or technical error) and bad reasons (e.g. data brokers who specialize in the gathering of PII are a recognized industry). Finally the architecture or code of the Internet and its protocols determine the built environment that surrounds social interaction in cyberspace. Of these modalities Lessig argues that by far the most important for our contemporary situation is that of architecture or instructional code. What is unique and problematic about architecture in comparison with the other modalities is that it is self-­executing. Whereas law, social norms, and the market require an agent to act first before any regulation is exercised, code or architecture requires no such human agency. Regulation can also be objective or subjective; and the more subjectively-­held the modality is, the more constraining or enabling it is. With business platforms, driven as they are by third-­party advertising, increasingly mediating the relationship between members of the consumer-­public on the one hand and organizations on the other, the total system of regulation-objective and subjective-deriving from the interaction between the different modalities is increasingly being influenced by the values and architecture of informational capitalism. The consequences of this are that these platforms and their architecture provide a social space where privacy is becoming commoditized, and open to display; and our interactions are becoming increasingly regulated and governed by the values and interests of informational capitalism.     


About the author

Jonathan Foster's research and teaching interests are in information governance, digital economy, and institutional and classroom perspectives on the implementation of information and communications technology in educational settings. He has higher degrees in Information Systems and in Education (M.Ed. in Teaching and Learning from the University of Sheffield), and received a PhD in Information Studies (Social Sciences) from the University of Sheffield. He has been PI for an externally-­funded AHRC project investigating the implementation and evaluation of digital archives; and has led a number of learning and teaching development projects including Computer-­Based Collaborative Learning (funded by TLTP) and Managing Innovation in the Digital Economy (funded by University of Sheffield). Recently he was PI for a University of Sheffield Digital Transformations Research project on Collective Intelligence (2013-­14); a strand of which investigated shared understandings of the impact of technology on privacy, and organizations’ handling of personally-­identifiable information.    


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Un projet Labex Arts H2H