Cookie Conversation with Julia Janssen

IMPAKT Festival 2023: Our Terms, Our Conditions

To dive deeper into the terms and conditions of the festival, we present the Cookie Conversations: a series of interviews with artists and speakers from the programme. Our second guest is Julia Janssen. Janssen is an artist and ambassador for the Dutch Data Protection Agency (Stichting Data Bescherming Nederland). She will take part in the panels RIP, If You Can and The Case Against, and you can participate in her performance 0.0146 Seconds at the festival.

How do you think individuals can advocate for fairer internet use?

I think it’s important to note that I advocate for more systemic change. I do believe there are certain choices we can make now as individuals, but I think the amount of responsibility currently placed on the individual is wrong. For instance, in the Netherlands and Europe we do have good rights, as part of the General Data Protection Regulation. But these ask a lot of people; to understand what they are, and to act accordingly. The foundation for gathering your data is informed consent, which is very important and contains values such as voluntariness. But it’s also debatable: if you have to agree in order to use a website or an app, then it’s not truly voluntary. And it shifts the responsibility of data protection onto the individual instead of the government, the maker or the industry itself. Sure, there are small choices you can make, such as using Signal instead of WhatsApp, or Firefox instead of Safari or Chrome. However, you’re operating in a system that is too massive or complex.

I don’t think it’s fair to say ‘well then don’t use that app if you don’t want them to track your data’, because often it’s a necessity: if your school or your employer is using Google/Gmail, it’s no voluntary choice. However, what I find interesting and why I connect myself as an artist to the Dutch Data Protection Foundation, are the lawsuits we’re pursuing. Such mass claims, they’re really about mobilising people to fight for their rights. You can’t fight Twitter/X or Amazon by yourself, but by signing up for such a lawsuit, you can say ‘we’re not taking this any longer, this has to stop’ and help bring about systemic change: to call on politicians to fight this, to address the whole infrastructure of data collection and to actually hold tech companies accountable if they’re not following the rules. Because they’re not following the rules, and they’re getting away with it.

So what you could do now, regardless of whether or not you download an app or choose an alternative that takes less of your data (like Proton Mail instead of Gmail), is speak up and get involved, for instance by supporting our lawsuits. Every signal we send, is a message to the industry that we want change.

How does your artistic practice relate to this year’s theme, Our Terms, Our Conditions?

A fantastic theme that lies at the core of what I do as an artist and ambassador for the Dutch Data Protection Foundation. I constantly come into contact with case law and legislation because I read along with our subpoenas and talk to our lawyers about it. So I actually talk about data protection and privacy laws and rights on a daily basis, and how people can better act on them. I’ve done several projects dealing with this. For instance, Non-Discrimination by Design was very much about privacy and algorithms, and I worked with human rights activists and lawyers to create a handbook for the Ministry of the Interior on how to make sure that systems are less biased.

And my first project, years ago, started out as something of a joke about making the internet tangible. So then I made a booklet about Google’s terms and conditions, and the first sentence was: if you use our servers, then you automatically agree with our terms and conditions. Which I thought was completely ridiculous, because it’s almost possible not to use Google. It’s a legally binding contract that we agree to without doing anything. I started selling this booklet at a convention, with a note next to it saying ‘by buying this booklet, you automatically agree to the terms that you can be followed by a tracker for the rest of the day.’ The moment people bought it, a friend of mine would start following them and writing down what they were doing. People thought that was very invasive, and they got quite angry.

Once you start putting these things we take for granted on the internet in a different context, you suddenly notice how ridiculous they are, and how they clash with what we find desirable as a society. And this ended up informing my entire practice, such as the project 0.0146 Seconds.

What event or programme of the IMPAKT Festival are you looking forward to most?

I’m really looking forward to the two panels I am part of myself, RIP, If You Can and The Case Against. Not just telling about my work, but especially meeting the other speakers and hearing their side. I’ve already spoken to them briefly, and they are extremely interesting people who have very new and different perspectives on the topic than I have. I’m just really looking forward to talking to them about it and learning from it.

In the theme of the festival, this year we created a series of Fortune Cookies with wishes for the future of technology and privacy. Which fortune cookie wish would you hope to find?

Very specifically, I would hope to make great strides in our cases against Twitter/X and Amazon. And there’s more to come. I think it’s less about winning or losing, but mainly about addressing the core of this system of such large-scale data trading and data abuse. For example, until 2021, Twitter used a whole network of 30,000 different apps to collect and combine peoples’ data. You didn’t even have to use Twitter. And that’s so incredibly uncontrollable and so incredibly dangerous, because the profile they make of you determines what you are presented with, from advertisements for shoes to potential job openings. It impacts your choices and impacts your future.

And where do you put all this data? It’s not just floating around somewhere. It’s mass that needs to be stored, and soon our fields will be filled with data centers. It’s not sustainable, either for our digital or our physical world.

This is such a big issue without people noticing. This makes it incredibly manipulative and invasive to our freedom, to our self-development and our equality. So what I would like my fortune cookie to predict is that uncontrolled, illegal data collection on such a scale shall be abolished.

Our other Cookie Conversation guests are Renske Leijten, Lotje Beek, Dasha Ilina, Caroline Sinders, Guillaume Slizewicz, Jeroen van Loon, Roel Heremans, Leon van Oldenborgh and Tomo Kihara.

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