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Communications of the ACM


Information: 'I' vs. 'We' vs. 'They'

three-sided figure with sides labeled 'we' and 'they' and 'I' respectively

Credit: Popenkov Dmytr

In his May 2021 Vienna Gödel Lecture, Moshe Vardi made the case for a moral "trilemma."5 Paraphrasing Vardi, it referred to the increasing power of online content, including the power to seriously endanger the very foundations of a society, and the question of who should control that power. Should it be: private industry, as providers of the platforms; the government, representing the public; or nobody at all, following a constitutional imperative of free speech? We are just beginning to find answers to these questions, and different societies are taking different approaches.

Here, I present another "trilemma," which is related in that it is also about information sovereignty, but different in that it concerns what we usually call "personal data." To consider a current example, a bit representing whether a person is COVID-infected or not is certainly of a rather personal nature. But that does not answer yet whose data it is—and who should decide about whose data it is. Is it my data, not to be shared with anybody unless I explicitly give my consent? Or is it our data, because as a society we need this information, at least in some anonymized/aggregated form that is still precise enough to be truly useful, to treat a pandemic effectively? And do they, who effectively decide this, decide that question as I or we would do—if we were asked?


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