The aggregation of voices, tastes and preferences has its advantages in digital spaces. People are exposed to diverse crowd-created content in social networks, turn to crowds when in need of funding and purchase AI products that are developed and improved with the use of multiple users. However, as crowds become prominent in the digital space, this rise is accompanied by a parallel process of devaluing individual rights.
Classical liberal rights such as privacy, freedom of speech and property were originally created to protect individuals from unrestrained power. When a person becomes part of a technological crowd, their rights are faint, shadow versions of their liberal origin.
This devaluation process hinges on the user's consent to a platform or a manufacturer's terms of service agreements. Consent is supposedly based on liberal notions of freedom and individual autonomy. But in the digital context, consent is tenuous at best. People do not read or understand these agreements, and cannot negotiate their terms. Under these conditions, I maintain, consent is not a reflection of agreement but rather a formal, reductive tool that expresses a symbolic transformation from an individual to a part of a crowd. Classical liberal rights become a limited, crowd-based version of their original function.
Privacy, freedom of speech and property go through the process of a corporate, data-oriented and profit-based filter to become the rights of crowds and not a protection of individuals. The paper will make this point using the testcase of property in AI products. AI software becomes more adaptable and sophisticated when it is used, and the information that the product captures is highly valuable to the development process. Every user is part of a crowd that contributes to the improvement of the product, but this contribution is not acknowledged or compensated. Moreover, the property rights of users in AI products that they buy are a limited version of traditional ownership.
Users own the physical product, but they only have a license to use the software that is an inseparable part of the object’s purpose and use. According to the terms of the license, manufacturers retain control over many aspects of the object’s ongoing use. The manufacturer filters rights using consent until they become something else: rights of participation in a crowd. Property becomes the property of the crowd and includes limited user's control. This conception is remarkably different from the intellectual roots of liberal property as supporting freedom from power and individual autonomy.