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Liberal Innovation In ICT

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 21 February 2023

On Thursday 2 March, the Bassetti Foundation will host an online seminar and book launch (in Italian) with Gabriele Giacomini, author of The Arduous Road to Revolution, Resisting Authoritarian Regimes in the Digital Communication Age [2] (Mimesis International, 2022).

In his publication, Giacomini proposes the need for a form of Liberal Innovation within ICT, offering ideas to counter authoritarian drift that are based on human rights and broader democratic ideals.

The topic of creating digital infrastructure that supports our democratic ideals is also central in Sarah Lamdan's recent publication Data Cartels, The Companies That Control and Monopolize Our Information [3] (Stanford University Press, 2022). In this post I would like to take Giacomini's Liberal Innovation proposal and some of Lamdan's 'multifaceted solutions' to look for similarities and divergencies.

Data Cartels; a very brief overview

Lamdan's Data Cartels focusses on legal research and information systems that are the gold standard in their field but that offer services of data brokering to governments as well as private institutions. Being the gold standards puts these companies into a monopolistic position, one that they use to create new informational products based on analytics derived from data wealth harvested across a host of different fields.

Lamdan describes how these companies have transitioned from different forms of publishing to becoming data analytics organizations, using raw data that is organized into smart data and then used for predictive analysis and prescriptive analytics. The companies in question have platforms in the legal, academic, personal, financial and news fields, amalgamating data from their various sources to create what they call 'risk products' and 'business solutions'. The companies offer predictions based on all of this information (at a price) and maintain control not only over the data collection system but also over who gains access to the raw and worked data.

The author walks us through her argument in this Coalition for Networked Information Project Briefing series [4], from which I take the following quote:

'Until now, the data analytics companies have done a good job of obscuring the immensity of their informational power by maintaining each of their product lines in different silos, and by obscuring what their data products do by giving them vague names like 'special services' or 'risk solutions'. In turn, we, as consumers, have treated each of the companies' markets as separate entities, not as pieces of the same problem. If we deal with each of the data companies' product lines as if they are separate, we will never get to the heart of the problem that data analytics cause'.

The author paints a bleak picture:

Personal Data

The companies sell personal data to govt agencies as well as institutions dealing in or having an interest in insurance, housing, and health care (to name a few).

Academic research

Academic research results are treated as private property, access is often paywalled even when research is paid from public money, and those accessing it are subject to surveillance with the data produced used by third party organizations (potentially funders and employers).

Legal Information

The result of governmental inefficiency (inability to publish legal decisions and new laws quickly enough) and company efficiency (filling this gap) is that access to up-to-date law information is paywalled. The companies not only sell access to necessary legal information but also provide services that predict which legal strategies may be successful in a case and which judges might be most sympathetic to a certain party.

Financial Information

The best financial information is paywalled, with the public offered outdated and general information that leaves them in an inferior decision-making position.


The gathering together of news into a central database has led to local news sources being squeezed out and bias in what is presented. A knock-on result is that the news that is freely available to the public is less vetted, with private senders offering their own take and political line.

The author calls for blended multifaceted solutions that include antitrust interventions, the enforcement of consumer protection rules and a rise in public funding for the maintenance and support of public information infrastructure.

Lamdan quotes Carl Malamud as a summary: 'companies should not be allowed to be in both the business of providing critically important information to the public, and the business of selling personal data products to the government simultaneously. If we treat essential information as a public resource, and if we stop treating private data as an extractive industry, we can all 'swim in the ocean of knowledge'.

The Arduous Road to Revolution

Giacomini's focus is on the use of information and communication technology during rebellion against authoritarian power, raising issues of surveillance, propaganda spreading, censorship and the suppression of fundamental human rights.

The author describes different regime approaches related to ICT use and development including the importance of controlling digital media, their adoption of technological policies to directly counteract rebellion but also technological developments that aim to counteract systems used by those rebelling. This cat and mouse development process leads into a spiral of digital sophistication that often results in personal data from the protesters becoming available to the regimes with the disastrous results that we might imagine.

Giacomini describes a need for a form of liberal innovation, a political architecture that can foster the promotion of the emancipatory elements of digital media. Such an approach would require a modern up-to-date human rights system capable of protecting freedom in handling the cognitive elements conveyed by technologies: words, symbols, images, video, data and news.

If we look at his proposals in more detail it seems clear to me that what he is proposing shares similarities to and could support Lamdan's call to action (antitrust interventions, the enforcement of consumer protection rules, a rise in public funding for the maintenance and support of public information infrastructure).

The right to privacy that Giacomini proposes would make data collection more difficult, while the distribution of digital power and data between different organs of the state, politics and technology, institutions, civil society and public and private authorities would require the creation of authorities and organizations that could act as counterbalances. I feel that this line could also be seen as the crux of Lamden's argument throughout her book.

What Giacomini describes as the 'pressing issue of cognitive autonomy' is described in terms of the right to access information, protect one's own identity (oblivion and anonymity), freedom to communicate opinions and ideas and escape what the author describes as the conditioning of power, including the right to contextualization and de-indexing of news. These topics are very relevant and indeed prominent within Lamdan's book.

Regarding state documents, Giacomini states that restricting access to state documents (such as the legal documents Lamdan describes) not only hinders the ability of citizens to monitor government activity, but also prevents journalists and the media, as well as researchers or activists, from effectively carrying out their political functions. It is not enough to be free from power, citizens must be free to monitor, criticize, denounce and participate in an informed manner. These issues are very prominent in Lamdan's description of the way the legal platforms are used in the USA but also within her description of unequal access to academic literature brought about by paywalling.

Giacomini offers a series of questions (from Marx) that could quite easily apply to the contents of both books:

Are individuals aware of who collects which data and why? Do individuals consent to the use of their data and can they challenge it? Is there possibility to appeal? Are there sanctions for injustices and procedural violations? Are the objectives of the surveillance legitimate and appropriate? Is there proportionality between ends and means? Do the means of surveillance cause physical or psychological harm?

I very much look forward to debating some of these issues during the seminar.


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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] https://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2022/09/the_arduous_road_to_revolution.html
  3. 3] https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=33205
  4. 4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waHBADsh9t4
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Liberal Innovation In ICT
Read also: The Arduous Road to Revolution review and posts on tag algoritmo




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