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Are we on the cusp of another digital revolution?

Published: 1 December 2022

In this blog, first published in Business Brief on 1st December 2022, Bailiwick Data Protection Commissioner Emma Martins reflects on the passing of another extraordinary year, while looking ahead to what 2023 might have in store. She wonders if we’ve reached a zeitgeist moment in our history, where technological innovation will (again) impact us all on a huge scale.

One of the strange things about living through extraordinary times is how much we all normalise and often don’t even notice the revolutions we are living through and in.

Regardless of the backdrop of history, we all still have to go to work, pay the bills, get the kids to school etc. It is often only when we look back at how things have changed that we are struck by how momentous certain moments actually were.
The end of another year is always a good opportunity to reflect, to look back at the year that’s gone as well as previous years. I have often said that the pace of modern life gives us scant opportunities to take a bit of time out and just reflect on what we have done, what we haven’t done, as well as what is going on in our own Islands and further afield.

Some of us will remember a pre-internet world. If you do, you will be in no doubt about the enormity of the technical, social, political and economic transformations that followed.

There is something of a consensus that there has been a misalignment between some of the recent technology developments and our human values. Governments across the globe are grappling with tidal waves of online hate, misinformation, child exploitation etc. If we take a moment to reflect on how we allowed those things to happen, it could be argued that we simply did not ensure the conversation about those values started at the very beginning. It is very hard to retro-fit good data governance and ethics into business models which are so hard-baked.

But history continues. Our love affair with technology continues. It’s just that we may not recognise the magnitude of things it as easily when we are living through it, as when we look back at it.

You may, like me, have become increasingly aware of hearing the term ‘metaverse’ whether in the context of gaming, child protection, the future of work – all sorts of different areas. Lots (and lots) of money is being invested into it and it is widely described as the next evolution of the internet. If you haven’t yet come across it, it is a virtual world in which we (well, our avatars) will live, work, shop, game and communicate. And this is not just the stuff of sci-fi. If you know anyone that plays games such as Roblox, they are already in an early form of the metaverse. But this is not just about gaming. Last month, Interpol (The International Criminal Police Organisation) launched the first global police metaverse to allow immersive training for officers across the globe.

This is, I think, a zeitgeist moment in our history, where technological innovation will (again) impact us all on a huge scale. The opportunities are real, and so are the risks. Perhaps now is the time for us all to take a moment to reflect on what lessons we can learn from the past because “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (George Santayana)

The window of opportunity for ensuring that is, I suspect, closing. The data protection legal framework requires something it calls ‘data protection by design and default’. The jargon can be challenging, as in all areas of law, but all this is seeking to do is require those building platforms and systems that collect our personal data to build protections in from the beginning. 

The next evolution of the internet is already being built. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, in looking forward, we could learn from looking back – ensuring that good governance and protections, especially for children, are simply built in from the outset.