Neo- Panopticism, Big Data, and Code of Ethics

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Ever imagined how we type and scroll through one website and get thousands of recommendations on similar topics on other media platforms? In the digital world, the process of digitisation has been optimised through the Big Data Revolution. It is now considered as the ‘New Gold’. Based on ‘one like’ a person’s personal choices ranging from clothes, food, politics everything could be analysed and enumerated. This data is then used by companies to sell the apt products or services based on our preferences. We are dependent on various applications for booking appointments, paying bills and also to make some quick decisions for instance, finance, insurance or stock management.  The life between online and offline has been significantly blurred and is now present in almost all aspects of our life.

This reminds me of an architectural design made by the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It was an annular building on the periphery, at the centre there was a tower with large windows opening towards the inner side of the ring. The inner structure was divided into small cells with two windows. One corresponds to the tower and another allows light to pass across the hall. And by placing one supervisor, a principal, or an inspector at the centre of the tower it could turn into a mental asylum, a school, or a prison. Michael Foucault in his work ‘ Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’ uses this Panopticon model to explain the Genesis of power. The entire system is a visual trap. The person in the cell would never know whether somebody is watching them or not. Power in this design becomes ‘unverifiable’. Anyone can gaze through the tower thus a capillary action of power is created rather than a single unit of power. Bentham devised this idea for disciplinary purposes in several institutions.

Today panopticism as a metaphor can be used to define technological surveillance. Since power is exercised over us and our decision-making is invisible and unverifiable we do not explicitly feel being violated. While downloading an app, or giving acceptance to certain access on our phone we do not analyse the consequences of it. As our human mind is conditioned to focus on results and to maximise desires, we tend to ignore threats that are certainly looming over us all the time. George Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ is now transformed into an invisible power wherein our choices and rights are not limited, we are not living in an authoritarian state rather we are living in a state of illusion. Data is Controlling our search optimisation techniques.

After the infamous revelation of the surveillance system of United States investigative agencies by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, people and scholars started to identify the ethical issues surrounding privacy, big data, and Governance. Further, after the US Presidential elections in 2016, this concern was alleviated by a controversy. Scholars have termed this kind of technology as persuasive technology. Digital panopticism is controlling and changing our behavioural patterns.

Many countries have now adopted digital media codes or rules and regulations to restrict the misuse of the data collected by various online platforms. In India, the recent Information Technology (IntermediaryGuidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 is also laid down on similar lines. The government has described these rules as a soft-touch self-regulatory mechanism. All media platforms will have to set up a grievances redressal and compliance mechanism, which should constitute a resident grievance officer, chief compliance officer, and a nodal contact person. The Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology has further ordered platforms to submit monthly reports on complaints received from users and actions taken. Finally, instant messaging apps will have to make provisions  for tracking the first originator of a message in case it is asked by legitimate authorities. Apprehensions raised by companies are related to the latter part of the rule.

Media platforms will have to accept the rules for the greater good. However, both sides will have to reconcile and find a middle way by ensuring safety to the citizens. On the other hand, specific rules will have to be laid down as to stating the purpose of tracking messages and how the data will be utilised.

The government’s initiative is timely as technology is outgrowing the legal-justice system. The new era is going to be the age of the digital world, however ethical themes as enshrined in international treaties and our constitution must always be upheld. Human dignity and right to privacy as under Fundamental Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) must guide the policies and actions of various entities. Values such as autonomy, equal power relationships, and control over technology are not explicitly named in the treaties but can be seen as part of following these fundamental and human rights.

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