On the 13th February 2019 the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers adopted a Declaration “on the manipulative capabilities of algorithmic processes”.
As is widely known, the Council of Europe is an international organization whose aim is to promote democracy (and) human rights.
With its Declaration of February 13th, the Council of Europe seems to address the issue of data protection from a new perspective. In fact, attention is focused on the risk that personal data may be used to manipulate individuals’ social and political behaviour.
The Declaration was adopted in the context of a society characterized by the continuous flow of vast amounts of data. This information is collected and processed by systems based on algorithimic processes which allow previously inconceivable activities to be carried out: “these data are used to train machine-learning technologies to prioritize search results, to predict and shape personal preferences, to alter information flows, and, sometimes, to subject individuals to behavioural experimentation”.
The Committee of Ministers notes that data-processing makes it possible to infer intimate and detailed information about individuals from readily available data. These are so-called “inferred data”, namely data obtained from other data.
Such extensive and detailed knowledge allows the controller of the data-processing to profile individuals and to take account of their personal characteristics.
In this way, the availability of certain information about individuals, such as their social and cultural background, religious belief, or economic status, increases the risk of new and different forms of discrimination.
Moreover, data-driven technologies and systems are designed to use vast amounts of data not only to predict choices but also to influence emotions and thoughts and alter an anticipated course of action.
As stated in the Declaration, the manipulative capabilities of algorithmic processes may have significant effects on the cognitive autonomy of individuals and their right to form opinions and take independent decisions. This is the main risk envisaged in the Declaration, considering that individuals might be influenced not only in their economic decisions but also in their political choices.
Therefore, the Council of Europe’s attention of is not focused on the protection of the individual’s private sphere, but rather on safeguarding the autonomy of individuals and their right of choice and self-determination.
In order to prevent the risk of interference with fundamental rights, the Declaration encourages member States to consider the need for a protective framework related to data which addresses the significant impacts of the targeted use of data on societies and on the exercise of fundamental human rights, to initiate public debates in order to provide guidance on where to draw the line between “forms of permissible persuasion” and “unacceptable manipulation” and to provide appropriate protective measures.