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“Contentious data” paper development workshop hosted by Davide and Stefania (November 12-13)

On November 12-13, Davide and Stefania will host a paper development workshop where the prospective authors of the special issue Contentious Data: The Social Movement Society in the Age of Datafication will have the chance to discuss their draft papers. The issue is edited by Stefania Milan, Davide Beraldo and Cristina Flesher Fominaya, and will be submitted to the International peer-reviewed journal Social Movement Studies. Due to the pandemic, the workshop has been moved to Zoom.




Stefania at the kick-off of “Global Digital Cultures” (2 October)

The University of Amsterdam has a new Research Priority Area dedicated to exploring “Global Digital Cultures”. Global Digital Cultures is a interdisciplinary research community for comparing and analyzing the profound changes brought about by digitization around the globe. Read more here.

The kick-off event of the new Research Priority Area featured a keynote by Prof. Louise Amoore (Durham University) in conversation with our PI Stefania Milan, along the lines of Amoore’s latest book on “Cloud Ethics” (Duke University Press, 2020).

Stefania in conversation with Ranga Yogeshwar (Berlin & YouTube, 19 September)

Stefania was in Berlin on Saturday the 19th of September to give a talk at the Futurium museum–the awesome House of Futures.

With a reduced audience due to Covid-19, Stefania discussed risks and opportunities of datafication in conversation with Germany’s most famous science journalist, Ranga Yogeshwar. The event is available on YouTube. Note that the talk is in English with some inserts (e.g., the introduction) in German. Enjoy!

Stefania at 2.Dh5 Festival, Utrecht

On 1-2 February, Stefania will attend the 2.Dh5 Festival in Utrecht, the Netherlands. She will give a presentation on “Surveillance capiralism and the future of data activism” , with a Q&A section (date and time will be announced on the 2.Dh5 Festival website).

About the presentation:

Surveillance capitalism is grounded on the transformation of human actions, interactions and emotions into data points which can be quantified, analysed and monetised. It accelerates the crisis of liberal democracies, and changes the role of information and technology in the constitution of our societies. People may react by fighting the aggressive intermediation of the industry, including social media platforms, and the snooping of the state, for example through “smart city” projects. Others may leverage the possibilities for transformative collective action harboured by big data. This talk explores how citizens, social change activists, and variably skilled users engage with datafication looking at emerging practices of “data activism”. It takes stock of the main tendencies we observe on the field, and surveys emerging areas such as algorithmic activism and device activism.

Download the presentation.

Stefania at Workshop organized by OffTopic Lab, Milan

On 25 January 2020, Stefania will attend the workshop “Contesto urbano. Strumenti e pratiche per deostruire il Modello Milano” organised by OffTopic Lab in Milan, Italy. She will participate in the rountable “La città ambigua: presente e futuro della metropoli tra decoro, sorveglianza, greenwashing (The ambiguous city: present and future of the metropolis between decoration, surveillance, greenwashing)” from 15.00 to 18.00.

Stefania at the CPDP Computer, Privacy and Data Protection Conference, Brussels

On Thursday 23 Janurary 2020, Stefania will attend the 13th International Conference of CPDP in Brussels, Belgium. She will speak in the panel ‘Online privacy, algorithmic bias, targeted political advertising — an interdisciplinary conversation’ organized by Mozilla. She will join on stage with other speakers: Fanny Hidvegi (Access Now); Matt Rogerson (The Guardian); and Sarah Bird (Mozilla).


Panel Desciption:

With an increasing degree of automation in the systems responsible for content delivery, advertisement platforms and content recommender systems alike are filtering, weighting, and ranking a continuous feed of potential items to provide a tailored experience to each individual based on their personal preferences and past behaviour. The complexity of such systems introduces a sophisticated (and almost totally opaque) new layer to peoples’ ability to access information. Automated decisions drastically impact our access to information and relationship with content serving and journalistic platforms. In many cases, the definition of success for such systems is not based on individual or societal well-being, but rather on some variation of engagement or revenue. A common belief motivating the design and optimization of these algorithms is that more (private) information about an individual equates to a better experience and more valuable advertisement via increasingly specific programmatic micro-targeting. This panel will present a multidisciplinary investigation of the interaction between data collection, the algorithmic nature of content recommendation systems, the commercial forces at play for such platforms and the individual and societal consequences of their prevalence.


Off the Beaten Path: Human rights advocacy to change the Internet infrastructure

Report on Public Interest Internet Infrastructure workshop held at Harvard University in September 2019

by Corinne Cath-Speth and Niels ten Oever


Surveillance-based business model[s] force people to make a Faustian bargain, whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse.

Choice words from the latest report published by Amnesty International, in which they consider the human rights’ implications of Big Tech’s extractive business model. Their conclusions are bleak; the terms of service on which we engage in social media and search are diametrically opposed to human rights. This, however, comes as no surprise to academics and activists who have been highlighting the Internet’s negative ramifications over the past decade. In this blog, we present some thoughts on the promises and perils of human rights advocacy aimed at changing computer, rather than, legal code. It draws on insights shared during a two-day workshop on public interest advocacy and design in Internet governance processes, with a particular focus on Internet standards. The workshop, entitled “Future Paths to a Public Interest Internet Infrastructure” took place in the fall of 2019 at the Harvard Kennedy School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It brought together 26 academics, activists, technologists, civil servants, and private sector representatives from 12 countries.

Concerns at the intersection of Internet governance and society span way beyond—or rather, below—those touching on social media, search engines, or e-commerce. They also include technologies, like Internet standards and protocols, that most of us have never seen but rely on for our day-to-day use of the Internet. The development and governance of these technologies is increasingly subject to scrutiny of public interest advocates. This is not that surprising given the history of struggles over power, norms, and values that colour the development of global communications infrastructures, like the phone, the telegraph, and Internet standards.

The advocates currently participating in governance and standards bodies are legion: they span from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to various Centres for Internet and Society, to the C-suites of tech-companies. Their theories-of-change rooted in the idea that digital technologies shape communication such that it can impede or enable the exercise of rights. Their tactics focused on direct engagement with companies, often through the technical working groups of the key Internet governance organizations. Little, however, is known about these advocacy efforts. Like the standards they focus on, these efforts are largely invisible. The ferocity of the public debates about the negative impact of the Internet on society, as well as growing condemnation of industry-led tech ethics efforts, calls for these efforts to be brought to light.

Documenting Workshop Discussions

The discussion at the workshop took us from the very top of the Internet’s stack, where our social media and search applications live, to its depths where sharks chew on Internet cables. We discussed expanding, collapsing, horizontally and vertically integrating the Internet’s stack, and even doing away with the concept all together. Likewise, we discussed what it means to do public interest advocacy aimed at changing the Internet’s infrastructure, what “public interest” entails as a concept, how different stakeholders can be effective advocates of it, and what it takes to study it. We do not aim to provide definitive answers. Rather, we will highlight three discussions that show where participants diverged and converged on their respective path(s) towards including public interest considerations in the Internet’s infrastructure.

  • Pragmatism and its politics: How and when public interest advocates should team up with colleagues in the private sector or government was a crucial discussion during the workshop. It revealed that cross-industry cooperation often put the public interest advocates between a rock and a hard problem: how do you known when cooperation turns into co-optation? Many took a “pragmatist” position, acknowledging that their concerns around tech development often stemmed from core-business decisions, which they considered beyond their influence. However, they argued, this was insufficient reason to write off strategic cooperation to move the technical needle. Even if it meant much of their work was focused on treating symptoms rather than causes. The turn to pragmatism, highlighted an underlying concern. As with most social values, “public interest”, means different things to different folks. This in turn implies that public interest representatives are not only contending with difficult choices about strategic collaboration across sectors, but also within them. This tension is both irresolvable and interesting, for the debate and careful articulation of advocacy positions it requires. Which, as one participant optimistically quipped: is helpful because now at least I know where you are going and what it takes for us to get there.
  • Shrinking space for civil society: Civil society organisations trying to raise public interest considerations in Internet governance are fighting on multiple fronts. Within Internet governance organisations they are contending with inherent hurdles: the power differentials between corporate and non-commercial participants, lack of civil society funding for work seen as technically opaque and difficult to explain to funders; the technical learning curve; lack of consensus among allied organisations; and the confrontational culture of Internet standardisation bodies. At the same time, they are operating in a broader context of a shrinking space for civil society. In many countries, the regulatory environment is such that it is near impossible to be an effective civil society organisation. The question then becomes how to grow and sustain civil society participation in the development of the Internet’s infrastructure in the face of internal and external pressure that limit it.
  • What is the endgame? For some getting the tech right was their main concern. Other argued that this was too narrow an endgame for public interest representation in Internet governance. Focusing on the tech is necessary but insufficient. Code, the participants agreed, is not the pinnacle of societal change. In order for these interventions to have ramifications beyond their direct context they need to connect to existing work done outside of a limited number of Internet standardisation bodies. Many of the participants were actively creating these necessary connections to other technical communities, by talking to Internet Service Providers (ISP) and other Internet governance stakeholders. Yet, many agreed that ensuring the Internet’s infrastructure reflects particular articulations of “the public interest” requires policy as much as protocol intervention.

These three discussions only scratch at the surface of the conversation during the workshop. If you are interested in learning more, please see here for the full workshop report. The social movements bringing a range of public interest considerations (from civil liberties, to social justice, to human rights) to the Internet infrastructure and its governance processes, will keep evolving. Like the Internet’s infrastructure itself. This blog should thus as is good practice in academia, engineering, and activism alike, be seen as documentation of known issues and efforts at this current moment. Rather than a singular path-forward. It provides a departure point to further develop this conversation to include a broader range of stakeholders, network engaged scholars, and practitioners.

The workshop was organised by:

  • Niels ten Oever, DATACTIVE, University of Amsterdam
  • Corinne Cath-Speth, Oxford Internet Institute, Digital Ethics Lab, University of Oxford
  • Beatrice Martini, Digital HKS, Harvard Kennedy School

We would like to thank the Harvard Kennedy School, ARTICLE19, Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Open Technology Fund, European Research Council, DATACTIVE, and the Amsterdam School for Globalisation Studies for their generous support that made this this workshop possible.


Internet governance, standards, and infrastructure

Everyday Data: a Workshop Report

By Becky Kazansky and Guillen Torres


On September 15th 2019, DATACTIVE held a one-day workshop following on the heels of the Data Power conference in Bremen, Germany. We were kindly hosted by the Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research (ZeMKIi) of the University of Bremen. Over this day, we sought to create a space to explore and unpack the concept of the ‘everyday’ as it figures into studies of data practices and resistance to datafication. The workshop brought together a small group of interdisciplinary scholars working on issues related to the making and unmaking of datafication, to paraphrase Neal and Murji (2015). Participants came from sociology, anthropology, computer science, media studies, and informatics. Their topics of research include community activism, platform labor, feminist data practices, and the data-resistant practices of states, studying datafication through the respective participation of citizens, governments, corporations, and academia. In this blog post we explain our inspiration for this workshop, and highlight some of the discussions that resulted. We conclude with an invitation for further ideas and contributions. 


From data activism to everyday data

Since coming together in 2015, the DATACTIVE research group has been engaged in the empirical study of the ‘politics of data according to civil society’. During the past four years, we have interviewed over 200 civil society actors from all over the world, who ‘reactively’ or ‘proactively’ (see: Milan and Van der Velden, 2016) engage with datafication through a myriad of different projects (Check our output and blogs for some examples!).  Our approach to these data practices was initially guided by the category of data activism, which helped us foreground new types of political activity made possible by the availability of data. We have since observed that the data activist lens holds the potential to draw sharp boundaries between political and non-political engagements with data. Yet, as datafication has continued to become more pervasive, with responses (including tactics of resistance from different parts of society) to it ever more varied, it has become harder to pinpoint what practices qualify as activism per se —  and which ones do not. 


In our research we have encountered many ‘data practices’ that sit within an interzone that blurs hard distinctions between the ‘activist’ and the ‘everyday’. Furthermore, the big and small data-related controversies of the past years have made evident that what is regarded as ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ shifts with the diffusion of new technologies, forms of knowledge production, and sociopolitical instabilities (Amoore, 2013). Furthermore, we’ve noted that what is considered ‘everyday’ or ‘extraordinary’ fundamentally pivots around the perspective privileged in making this distinction. We have thus grown interested in exploring how the ordinary and everyday should be accounted for in the study of data practices and in our understanding of resistance to the harms of datafication. 


Much research on the relation between datafication and people’s agency has focused on highly- skilled proactive data activists (Gutierrez and Milan 2019), or on how human agency is overridden by algorithmic decision-making. Taking a slightly different road, we seek to explore how power asymmetries are constantly reproduced or challenged through people’s engagement with data in everyday life. In our view, investigating how datafication is “made and unmade” in everyday life implies foregrounding practices which may not be immediately recognized as data activism, but still consist of a response that can be understood as political, even if not necessarily classified as such. 

As part of our ongoing interest in locating spaces for human agency within datafication, we DATACTIVE project members have engaged in a number of lively internal discussions about how data activism fits with broader conceptualizations of ‘data practices’ (Fotoupoulo, 2019), emerging notions of ‘data politics’ (Ruppert et al., 2017), and the imperative to study the ‘everyday’ of dataficatication (Kennedy, 2018). With the goal of questioning the notion of the “ordinary” amidst continuous optimization (Gürses, et al, 2018), creeping surveillance (Monahan, 2010) and perpetually looming states of exception (McQuillan, 2015), we decided to organize a workshop to explore the role of the everyday as a locus of agency, resistance and political intervention. 


The workshop

We kept the format of the day a bit experimental: rather than requiring participants to produce an original piece for the workshop, we asked them to take their existing work around datafication and reflect upon it through the lens of several exploratory questions:

  • How do every-day acts come to be understood as spaces of political intervention?
  • What are the every-day and banal aspects of “acting on” and “through” data? 
  • How does agency evolve in relation to everyday engagement with data? 
  • Who determines what is considered the “everyday”?
  • What perspectives are privileged to build the ordinary/extraordinary distinction?
  • How does the ordinary change with the diffusion of new technologies and politics?
  • What happens between the extraordinary moments of political mobilisation that we hear about in the media?

Probing these unwieldy questions in our small pocket of space-time surfaced a number of shared concerns, which we briefly highlight below. 


Big P politics and the everyday

Subjacent to our interest in the everyday is the distinction between The Political (read in an egregious Carl Schmitt voice) and politics. During the workshop, this found expression in a collective concern about what we, as researchers, may leave out of sight if we only focus on what seems overtly political. One of the initial intuitions guiding the theme of the  workshop was that the distinction between activist and non-activist engagements with data hides a very Political decision that needs to be questioned, and during the discussion this proved to be a key topic. When focusing on everyday experiences of datafication, we, as researchers, are responsible for locating, highlighting and questioning the political consequences of our making (extra)ordinary of data practices. This requires a sensibility towards the context and discourses of the people enacting the practices we study, which means that their status as Political/activist depends more on their own lived experiences and less on our analytical categories. The relevance of people’s everyday lived experiences also means that we need to remain attentive to how race, gender, class and politics influence what practitioners, observers and powerful actors understand as Political or ordinary.


Marginalized, minoritized, colonized and exploited, but (re)gaining agency.

Slowly but surely, narratives about datafication in which human agency is missing are being challenged. All workshop presentations reflected around the ever-growing number of ways through which people can and already do gain agency through or in relation to data, overcoming governments or companies who, thanks to their privileged access to technology, have turned datafication into a tool particularly suitable for control, oppression, surveillance and exploitation. The examples of responses to this fatalist narrative of datafication are as diverse as the communities who put them forward. Inspired by Dr Seeta Peña Gangadharan’s keynote days earlier at the Data Power conference, we discussed calls to practice (and recognize) small acts of refusal in situations of data harm — as well as the long history of organizing that informs recent calls to abolish unjust data-driven systems. We looked at feminist data practices putting forward alternative versions of datafication to question privileges and oppression. We discussed contemporary modes of worker resistance to the unethical conditions of surveillance capitalism, as well as the forms of ‘resistance’ that can arise from people participating within oppressive structures themselves. The general feeling of the workshop was that the pervasiveness of datafication is making evident a plethora of other spaces and strategies for claiming agency beyond exceptional moments of collective mobilisation and existing categories of explicitly political action.


In all these examples, we notice the presence of actors who might not fit the label of data activists very visibly challenging the unjust consequences of datafication in their everyday lives. This is, however, hardly a new phenomenon. Minoritized, marginalized, colonized and exploited communities have always experienced everyday life as a space of political struggle. Workshop participants reflected on the experiences of people of color, rural dwellers attempting to benefit from the perks of digital citizenship, Latin American feminist activists, and data intermediaries working with marginalized city dwellers, amongst others.  From these reflections originated questions concerning research ethics and positionality: What role does the ‘agency’ of these communities play in making and unmaking datafication? Where does individual agency fit in relation to governance and accountability for data harms? Is it right to analyze the refusal of actors thought of as more ‘powerful’ through the same lens of resistance as marginalized or harmed communities? 


Acting on the everyday

Another one of our core interests in organizing the Everyday Data workshop was to reflect around the everyday as a space to foster resistance to the harmful consequences of datafication, and whether we, as academics, should open it up for examination or leave it alone to prevent its cooptation. During the discussion, this concern acquired two forms. The first was related to how to approach the everyday from our positionality as academics, which implies questioning how notions of ‘everyday’ are shaped not just by datafication but by the way ‘ life’ is ordered and categorized — for example, imagining what the everyday would mean without the implicit structuring of capitalist consumption or labor. The second concern was connected to the role that research on these issues may play in relation to advocacy. What do we want to see ‘happen’ with our research findings? How to best support groups seeking just conditions under datafication? These questions are particularly hard when we decide to join the work of the communities we are interested in on their own terms and honoring the specificities of their values and their epistemic contributions, rather than imposing academic frameworks around ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’.


Contribute to the discussion

Following the rich discussion of our workshop, we are looking into ways to grow our brainstorm further. To that end, we invite those interested in reflecting upon the everyday dimension of datafication to write for our blog or propose another contribution. Please get in touch directly with Guillen & Becky. 


References and further reading

Amoore, L. (2013). The politics of possibility: Risk and security beyond probability. Durham: Duke University Press.

Datafication and Community Activism Workshop Participants (2019), What We Mean When We Say #AbolishBigData2019. In: Medium. Available at:

D’Ignazio, Catherine. K., Lauren, F. (2020). Data Feminism. S.I.: MIT Press.

Fotopoulou, A. (2019). Understanding citizen data practices from a feminist perspective. Embodiment and the ethics of care. In H. Stephansen & E. Trere (Eds.), Citizen Media and Practice. Oxford: Routledge.

Gutiérrez, M., & Milan, S. (2019). Playing with data and its consequences. First Monday, 24(1).

Gurses, Seda, Rebekah Overdorf, and Ero Balsa. (2018). POTs: The revolution will not be optimized? 11th Hot Topics in Privacy Enhancing Technologies (HotPETs).

Kennedy, H. (n.d.). Living With Data: Aligning Data Studies and Data Activism Through a Focus on Everyday Experiences of Datafication. Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy, 1, 18–30.

Milan, S., & van der Velden, L. (2018). Reversing Data Politics: An Introduction to the Special Issue. Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy, 2018(1), 1–3.

Milan, S., & Velden, L. van der. (2016). The Alternative Epistemologies of Data Activism. Digital Culture & Society, 2(2).

Neal, Sarah and Karim Murji. (2015). “Sociologies of everyday life: editors’ introduction to the special issue.” Sociology 49 (5): 811-819.

Ruppert, E., Isin, E., & Bigo, D. (2017). Data politics. Big Data & Society, 4(2), 205395171771774.

Photo Credit: Telmo32


Niels at ECREA: Infrastructures and Inequalities: Media industries, digital cultures and politics

The European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA) organized a workshop about Infrastructures and Inequalities. Here Niels presented his recent work on an experiment to inscribe legal and ethical norms into the Internet routing infrastructure. The conference helped to further concept of infrastructure, that continues to gaining traction in the fields of geography, media studies, anthropology, and science and technology studies.

Niels at Kyiv Biennial on architecture, protocols, routing, power, and control

The topic of the Kyiv Biennial this year is ‘the Black Cloud’. The title reminiscences the contaminated cloud that traveled over Europe after the Chernobyl disaster and invites us to reflect on the role of technology. At the Kyiv Biennial, the critical media scholar Svitlana Matviyenko organized a two-day symposium with the title ‘communicative militarism‘. Here Niels spoke about the evolution of power and control in the Internet architecture, the political economy that shapes it, and the threats and opportunities that lie ahead. Other speakers at the symposium were Geert Lovink, Clemens Apprich, Svitlana Matviyenko, and Asia BazdyrievaIMG_20191018_201112