Techno-politics of data justice: perspectives from Indonesia and the Philippines

Perpetrators of disinformation, a danger to democracy—these have been the choice words to describe Facebook amid the global battle against disinformation. But while the social media giant run by Mark Zuckerberg may have fallen out of grace among digital rights advocates, one Indonesian scholar describes Zuckerberg differently: a “prophet” presenting a gift from the gods.

This renowned scholar, who has taught at an Indonesian university for over 20 years and has recently gained notoriety as a pro-government social media influencer, frames the existence of social media akin to a religious experience: “It’s like God descended and said, “Here, this is the public sphere that you wanted for so long. I hand it to you through Mark Zuckerberg, through Google. It couldn’t reach you before, but now you have it. So, use it!”

This sentiment may seem surprising coming from an academic with a background in journalism—a field heavily battered by disinformation running rampant on the very platforms that Arya Susanto (not his real name) hails. Nonetheless his perspective reflects the different ways people perceive and respond to digitisation in society: while some hail digital transformation as a ticket to the future, others fear that the push towards digitisation oversimplifies or even exacerbates social problems.

EngageMedia recently collaborated with Diani Citra, research consultant from Sintesa Consulting, and the Alan Turing Institute (ATI) to understand how people in different contexts imagine and experience the growing digital landscape through the lens of data justice. This concept looks at the societal implications of datafication, particularly the impact of data-driven processes in people’s lives. To fill the gap in data justice research, the “Advancing Data Justice Research and Practice” project aims to expand existing narratives to include testimonies from unheard voices.

Exploring data justice

Every day, massive amounts of data are generated from every click, scroll, tap, filled-out form, and search term entered on digital devices. But how and to what ends this data is collected, analysed, and used is often unclear. While some benefit from access to and representation in digital systems, these same systems can also exclude others; for instance, modern apps are designed for digitally literate users, excluding those with limited digital knowledge and ability.

Broadly speaking, data justice refers to the fair and just approach in dealing with digital data, particularly in how people are made visible and represented in data collection and analysis processes. Historically marginalised communities have often been overlooked in the collection and use of data, resulting in the reinforcement of repressive and harmful systems. Data justice aims to counter the ways in which underrepresented communities are systematically rendered invisible by including their perspectives.

As one of ATI’s policy pilot partners, EngageMedia reported on how data justice is perceived and understood by civil society, technology groups, and affected communities in Indonesia and the Philippines. The resulting report,  The Techno-politics of Data Justice in Indonesia and the Philippines focuses on understanding the ways different groups imagine and experience the growing digital landscape.

A notable finding was the struggle to pin down a definition for data justice. Many respondents were unfamiliar with the term, and most tended to speak about data justice by talking about data injustice—such as barriers to access, lack of data protection, and restrictions on content. Most of the Filipino activists in our research tended to connect the societal impact of datafication to issues of data protection, individual rights, privacy, efficiency, and (digital) security.

For our respondents, the term “data justice” intersects with the digital rights discourse. They framed the concept in terms of algorithmic transparency, data privacy, security, and ownership. Others emphasised the link to social justice (i.e. data should be used to prevent inequities, ensure equal rights to access and participation in social and political life, help inform policy and improve the lives of marginalised communities). The common theme among the responses was the emphasis on fairness, equity, and transparency during the entire process: from the production and collection of data to its distribution, interpretation, and creation of products and services based on digital data. For respondents, the concept of data justice centres the observance of human rights and social justice in the creation, processing, and use of data.

Amid warnings about the threats of over-surveillance, privacy breaches, and censorship, many stakeholders in Indonesia and the Philippines see digitisation as not only inevitable, but also readily accept it as beneficial for society. For instance, Philippine activists and civil society organisations see data as the backbone for advocacy, research, and policymaking and lobbying efforts. For Indonesian respondents, digitisation takes on a more spiritual undertone as it is often couched in terms of keniscayaan, which translates as inevitability. In the research team’s interviews with policymakers and in Indonesian media, the term is often used in the discussion on Indonesia’s digitisation efforts. In everyday Bahasa Indonesia its use gives it a sense of something divine or prophetic.

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This relates to Arya Susanto’s view that the internet and social media are gifts from God, imbued with powers that individuals should not resist and should be grateful for. As more government and private services and resources are now available online, being part of the digital realm is essential for full social participation—applying for jobs, accessing health care, conducting business, connecting with friends and family, or expressing and sharing one’s views to a wider audience. Because of the many opportunities digital systems offer, digitisation is seen as a ticket to the future.

But the reverence for the digital tends to mask underlying issues: how are these technological advances shaped? By whom, and for whose interests? As the report noted: “This rhetoric of inevitability tends to obscure policy choices and conflicting interests that shape the processes of new technology adoption and hide the reality that digital transformation is not only a technological issue, but a social one as well.”

Privacy and rights trade off

This idea of inevitability also extends to data security and privacy: since being part of the digital realm is seen as necessary to fully participate in public life, giving away personal data in exchange for these conveniences is inescapable. But while civil society activists in the Philippines are concerned with data collection, Indonesian informants, especially those with limited socio-economic capital, say they have become accustomed to giving away control over their data to meet basic needs (such as better internet connection or access to work opportunities); many seem resigned about the lack of government protection over their data. Still others express some level of trust in the state. In the report, Emir from Indonesia explains: “I wouldn’t be in trouble as long as I don’t do anything negative. That’s what I think. Unless I do something like treason I shouldn’t be nervous”.

Some are willing to give away their data in exchange for social capital. Susanto feels that social media has given him a platform to express his views in ways he was unable to in the past. This was why, despite numerous media reports on data breaches and security concerns, he is all too willing to trade off data security for the feeling of power on social media.

“I will just choose to be grateful and thankful to Mark [Zuckerberg], Bill Gates, and friends,” he said. “You could even steal our data, I don’t care, and sell them, I don’t care… I’m already quite happy with what you’ve provided for us.”

Human dignity in a datafied society

Data justice also involves questions on whether the experience of being datafied maintains one’s dignity as a human being—enabling them to retain access and control of their data, or to have their identities be accurately reflected in datasets. But in a world where everything is digitised, can people who choose to opt out still live with dignity?

One interesting case in the report was the story of Ginanjar from Indonesia, a self-proclaimed anarchist who went to great lengths to avoid handing over his personal data. While trying to activate his public health insurance service, Ginanjar chose to travel back to his hometown to avoid having to send digital copies of his identification card. However, the local office still insisted that he send his data online through an app—even when he was already physically present. “They told me that I had to send my data over WhatsApp. For me, this is absurd, you know?”

Ginanjar’s case highlighted his efforts to minimise the amount of personal data collected in order to protect his privacy. Interestingly, in other cases respondents noted that more complex data collection was needed, particularly when it came to capturing the multiplicity of people’s identities. Dina Anjani (not her real name), host of a popular Indonesian YouTube channel that addresses issues of sexuality, says data justice “has to provide as many truths as possible in data collecting and processing.” But current methods of data collection are inadequate and non-comprehensive, which in turn could feel dehumanising to those whose identities are not fully reflected in these data sets. For Dina, in-person interaction helps bypass these limits and allows for more space to explain and express her identity. The report noted:

“[Dina] finds that, when appealed to personally, most Indonesians are capable of more understanding than digital technologies can afford them. During her driver’s licence renewal appointment, the officer asked her informally if she wanted her gender entry to be “woman.” He offered to change the digital entry that had been determined by Dina’s birth certificate.”

Ways forward

Based on the perspectives of our Indonesian and Filipino respondents, EngageMedia’s research found that digital technologies are accepted as an embodiment of progress in and of themselves, without adequately examining whether these are needed, or even wanted, within the local conditions they are used. Additionally, their negative impact goes largely unexamined. However, even if digitisation is inevitable, understanding how this trend unfolds can make a difference in helping mirror the lived experiences and hopes of people.

How do we move forward from here? Respondents listed several key recommendations, such as promoting transparency in data collection, processing, sharing, and disposal, and upholding the dignity of data owners in the process. They also highlighted the need to ensure that data accessibility and accountability measures for upholding data privacy are in place, as well as the importance of scrutinising existing mechanisms to avoid an elitist approach to data justice.

Technological development does not exist in a vacuum and should not be regarded as removed from its social context. Without a nuanced approach and understanding of the power dynamics in societies, inequalities offline will be replicated online. To counter this, it is important to continue discussions on how data justice manifests in daily life. This includes increasing awareness on data literacy and conducting digital security training to empower people to assert their rights over their data and exercise their agency to live a dignified life in a datafied society.

Digital technologies have become so intertwined with modern life that their use is essential in day-to-day activities. As Susanto exclaims in his exaltation of the internet and social media, these technologies are now regarded as something we simply have. The challenge is finding ways to ensure that in using these technologies, the access to and experience of the digital is more fair and dignified for everyone.

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