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Happy hour at the data-buffet is over

Facebook’s failure to value privacy is a painful reminder of the need to take back control of our personal data – but how? The solution just might be brewing in Finland.


Jukka Vahti

Project Director, Digital power and democracy


It is possible that the information of tens of millions of Facebook users may have been used to influence voter decisions in the democratic presidential elections of the world’s most significant nuclear state.

This news, which was first reported in The Guardian and The New York Times, has raised some questions around the world.

The revelations are not even particularly surprising as such, as most users of Facebook or of many other data-based services, yours truly included, do not have the faintest idea about how their information is used.

“The users do not have the faintest idea about how their information is used.”

According to the reports, the data of Facebook users has ended up in the hands of a company called Cambridge Analytica, which has used the information for profiling people. The company itself has denied attempting to influence the US presidential election.

Service providers should correspond to our requirements

Let’s look back in time a bit. The ideal situation for the future would be that we – you and me –have information on the basis of which we could assess whether or not Facebook or other service providers are worthy of our trust and our data.

In an ideal world we would also have options to choose from: we could favour services that are committed to “fair data use” over monopolies with vague and questionable practices.

In an ideal world we could favour data providers that exercise fair practices.

If the companies’ transparency and the way in which they use our data were compatible with rules we define ourselves, our thumbs would be pointed upward (at present, service providers write their rules in fine print, and many of us accept the terms without question).

If a service provider did not correspond to our requirements, our thumbs would be pointed down and neither Facebook nor any other entity would have any business getting our data.

The revolution is born between our ears

This ideal situation would differ considerably from the current oligarchical set-up in which companies largely define our services, our needs, our rights and the purposes for which our data is used.

The Cambridge Analytica case and the comments it has raised suggest that not even the giants in the field control how the data that flows through them is used, and that they do not necessarily even want to control it.

“The data jungle is an unpredictable place even for those at the top of the food chain.”

The furore of the past few days suggests that the data jungle is also an unpredictable place for those at the top of the food chain. We can assume that transparency would also be in their interest in the long run.

In any case, changing the situation requires both a significant change in the way of thinking and practical tools for the implementation of this change.

Could a human-driven data economy replace the rules of the jungle?

A sustainable solution for creating rules for the current data jungle would be a data revolution in which making decisions about our own data would be handed over to us.

This kind of revolution is already pending, and a project recently launched by Sitra, called IHAN – Human-centred data economy, aims to achieve this.

IHAN is at the head of the pack in international efforts to develop rules on a broad front for the confusion affecting the use of data: the rights of the individual are significantly strengthened by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation GDPR, among other things. The GDPR will be applied as of May.

“A popular movement does not happen – it is made.”

The goal of IHAN is to create an easy-to-use digital set of keys to control access to the locks that exist between personal data and services. The choice of relinquishing and using the keys would be made by us, according to our own judgement.

IHAN itself does not prevent abuses, but if it succeeds it will create possibilities for the production of fair services. Read more about IHAN and our human-driven data economy project here.


A popular movement does not happen – it is made.

So, if you are interested and think that the idea of a human-driven data economy might also interest others, remember to share this text on … well, your favourite social media outlet!

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