With our lives under lockdown as COVID-19 rages on, our reliance on digital technologies and communications tools has perhaps never been greater, leading many to speculate that the pandemic has brought the digital future forward. At the same time, the shortcomings of digital life are now more apparent than ever, giving many a newfound appreciation for the value of human connection and relational states of being. In this context, the Me2B Alliance’s efforts to recenter relationships in our digital lives takes on new meaning and urgency.
According to the Me2B Alliance, we have relationships with each of the product and service providers in our lives, in both the digital and physical spheres. In the digital sphere, our experience of these primary relationships is often through a digital product or service, such as a website, app, or connected device. Each of these digital relationships has at least three core dimensions—commercial, technical, and legal. They are primarily business and legal relationships mediated by a variety of hardware and software tools.
The technical dimension of digital relationships introduces a variety of intermediaries into our primary relationships and creates a parallel dimension of reality consisting of the data generated by transactions and interactions in the ordinary course of those relationships—a kind of “parallel dataverse.” A commercial logic of extraction further complicates matters by introducing myriad parasitic entities who feed on and extract value from this parallel dataverse, undermining and distorting our primary relationships in the process.
Our prevailing legal paradigm for digital interactions stems from an overly simplistic and antiquated view of the digital universe, accounting only for primary relationships, without considering the impact of an increasingly complex digital realm and growing parallel dataverse. By only accounting for one dimension of our digital lives, this legal paradigm and its associated legal ceremonies leave us exposed and vulnerable with insufficient safeguards and protections.
An alternative path forward must recalibrate our relationships and interactions in light of this increasingly complex and multidimensional view of the digital ecosystem. While digital will always be different, requiring intermediaries who enable our primary relationships, the more we can translate norms and expectations from the physical world into the digital realm, the closer we get to establishing effective standards and rules for our digital interactions.
Our legal paradigms must also evolve to capture this new reality by introducing base-level protections through prohibitions on certain activities and practices, mandating a risk-based approach to digital products and services, reestablishing context for our digital interactions, limiting default data collection and processing to what is necessary for primary business purposes, and imposing higher standards and obligations on parties who seek to go beyond what is necessary in the context of a bonafide commercial relationship.
Through this new paradigm, we can more easily define rules and norms for digital interactions that map to our expectations, according to the nature of our relationship to a given product or service provider. At the same time, we can also leverage and harness technology itself in the service of, rather than for purposes of extracting value from, these primary relationships. With new legal and technological foundations in place, the hope is to rebuild our digital relationships based on an ethos of mutual respect, in line with the Alliance’s mission.
Author: Elizabeth Renieris
This article was commissioned by the Me2B Alliance, originally authored in 2020.
Elizabeth M. Renieris is a data protection and privacy lawyer (CIPP/E, CIPP/US), Founding Director of the Technology Ethics Lab at the University of Notre Dame, the Founder and CEO of HACKYLAWYER LLC, a Technology and Human Rights Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and an Affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
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