We interviewed Pernille Tranberg who is an independent speaker and advisor in data democracy, data ethics, data understanding and digital self-defense. She speaks to school kids and teachers, politicians, officials and NGOs, business leaders and multinationals. She has written 7 books: the latest »DataEthics – The New Competitive Advantage« with Gry Hasselbalch. Pernille co-authored with Steffan Heuer »Fake It« about big data and digital self-defense.
Tell us a little about yourself. What is your core expertise or interest, however you wish to frame it?
My core interest is how to create a data democracy where individuals are in control of their own lives, where we are not ending in a place where the state controls your data. For instance in the US it's more or less big companies. I believe we have to build a data democracy in Europe where individuals have the main control of their own lives. I've been working on this intensely for 12 years after I stopped my career as a newspaper journalist.
So your career as a journalist was basically the path that led you to this interest?
Yes. When I left my reporting job I started looking at innovation and how you could actually make money in the newspaper business by looking at tech companies, especially in Silicon Valley. I tried to look a their business models and discover if we could do something similar. And then of course I saw all the dark sides of it as well, and that's why I started thinking that we needed to find that balance so individuals didn’t become lost in this technology.
What, in your opinion, is the main problem with the current data economy?
The main problem is that it's undermining individuals autonomy. If you want a democracy, individuals have to be autonomous, meaning that we are able to make decisions without being manipulated. Today most individuals are being both economically and politically manipulated online by addictive tools. It's totally opaque and undemocratic; the whole setup is wrong the way it is operating today.
What motivates you to help solve this problem, or this issue or issues? Did anything in particular trigger your interest?
That's a really good question, and I have been thinking deeply about it. One thing is that I have been an investigative journalist. I wanted to make the world better and to expose things. I also have some idealism in me. And maybe because I'm Jewish; not practicing Jewish, but my mother's family is Jewish, and that might mean that there’s something in my genes. I have no idea why I've been thinking about that but it’s on my mind. Why am I into privacy? Why is it so important? I think it's a combination of things. When I was working in journalism I found that a lot of my sources tried to find out personal information about me so they could stop what I was doing. Some went to my editor and said that I was really bad, tried to stalk me which was harder 20 years ago before the Internet. But that’s much easier today. So I've been in situations where I wanted to keep some secrets, and I think that's a very, very normal thing as a human, that you have your secrets. Or rather; privacy is that you decide who knows what about you when.
What is the best way to motivate every day people to join the movement for a fair data economy?
There's not one best way. But of course, all of those who had an experience online where they felt it was creepy, they're already motivated. If they feel their mobile phone has been listening in on them and get a suspicious ad then maybe that will get them going. Those people you can grab and show, there are other ways. Another thing is when I explain, for example, price differentiation, most people hate that they get a higher price than others. How is that possible? And I say It's because you're not in control of your data, you're not in control of your IP address, for example. That is also pretty motivating. I still do a lot of talks and teaching where it's an eyeopener for a lot of people. They have no idea, they have heard a little of this and that but getting the whole picture and understanding the landscape is very, very important. We need to have more teaching and talks about data handling so people see the coherence in it.
How did you become aware of polypoly? And why do you think polypoly might be part of the solution to some of the problems you’re describing?
I met Thorsten years ago in Helsinki at the MyData conference, and at that time I'd been working with individual data control or data democracy for a couple of years. And it has really taken me some years to understand what we could do in the future about controlling data with the individual more in the centre. polypoly’s constitution as a coop is something very Danish. We have a lot of coops in Denmark, some over 100 years old and very respected. They treat the environment well, they want to treat data responsibly as well. So the whole organization, the idea about the organisation as a coop is extremely important, and all the users will feel ownership in that way. So I really like that.
I think it's super interesting that there are so many coops in Denmark. Is there something in the Danish character or economy that accounts for this?
I think it is our socialistic history, where we share our wealth more equally than in many other counties and we had group dynamic. That's why, for instance, people joined together in a milk producers union, where they own a part of that and then they sold milk together. Earlier on in Denmark we were not as focused on individuals as they are in the US. Unfortunately this is changing. Research in media and other factors indicate that there is increasing focus on individuals and less on the group, But it is important that we have a group dynamic and that we show solidarity towards the group, it's also part of our welfare system in Denmark that if you become sick, even if you've been smoking all your life, it's not 100% your fault. Society recognizes there can be other circumstances, and as a society will help you even though you might have been able to make better choices.
Each of our advisors has a particular skill set. Given your expertise how would you advise polypoly to move forward? There's no right or wrong answer, just whatever comes to mind first.
The biggest challenge is to help people understand how data affects them, for good and for bad, and communicate it in a compelling way. It's a very difficult concept but the idea of a data cooperative makes it easier. Most people don’t understand that they can actually take control of their own data. So it's very important to explain it clearly. The Facebook Data Importer on the polyPod is a very good example. I use it now in my teaching. The importer lets Facebook users download their data and then analyze how it’s being used. So I think the biggest challenge is the communication part, and that's where I can help. Because polypoly is very good with the technology, and I think the technology is something you will get right. It has to be easy. It has to be convenient. And it seems already convenient with what you’ve achieved with the Facebook data. Part of the communication challenge is that when we shine a light on companies like Facebook, they try to pivot. »But we are also a data trust.« They will try to put themselves into the same shoes as polypoly and say that they are doing the same thing. Google plays the same game. They claim you can see how they use your data and that you are in full control. So it's gonna be a challenge to keep some of the big players differentiated because they are not interested in protecting personal data, they are not a data trust, they are not a polypoly. They never will be unless they totally change their business model. I know that Facebook looked into the idea of PIMS - personal information management services – through a company in London. So I'm waiting for them to say it as soon as a cooperative data movement breaks through. Just wait. They will put themselves on the playing field and claim they're the same. But it’s important to have the bad actors in a way. We don't want them, we don't want this model. But we do want something to contrast with. It’s good to have clear alternatives.