Digital self-determination

Digital Self-Determination: A Living Syllabus

From En L'An 2000



This syllabus and assorted materials have been created and curated from the 2021 Research Sprint run by the Digital Asia Hub and Berkman Klein Center for Internet Society at Harvard University. In collaboration with the Global Network of Internet & Society Centers (NoC), the Digital Asia Hub and the The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society brought together collaborators from the two co-hosting organizations and their global partners to explore the evolving normative concept of digital self-determination as an enabler of—or at least contributor—to the exercise of autonomy and agency in the face of shrinking choices in a world that is increasingly constructed, mediated and at times even dominated by digital technologies and digital media, including the underlying infrastructures, questions of control, power and equity become more critical. Visitors are invited and encouraged to explore the materials and use them where appropriate in learning experiences.

Course Description


This syllabus explores the evolving normative concept of “digital self-determination” as an enabler of - or at least contributor - to the exercise of autonomy and agency in the face of shrinking choices. In a world that is increasingly constructed, mediated and at times even dominated by digital technologies and digital media, including the underlying infrastructures, questions of control, power and equity become more critical.

In contemporary ethics debates, the notion of digital self-determination is invoked as a term to describe the possibility and realization of human flourishing as it relates to the use of digital technologies and their affordances. In policy debates, the concept has gained prominence in broader discussions about digital autonomy and digital sovereignty. Several efforts by governments and civil society organizations are underway to examine how civic and economic participation in the digital space can be enhanced based on the value of digital self-determination.

The notion of digital self-determination requires exploration from different perspectives and across cultural contexts. It invites examination of the concept both in theory and practice. This syllabus provides resources and learning materials that consider what digital self-determination means and requires at the individual level, for instance regarding people’s ability to decide for themselves what data they want to disclose, to whom, under what conditions, and with what benefits. It also engages with questions at the structural and systemic level, such as barriers to exercising such choices, and the stakes and consequences of certain design decisions.

While questions of control over personal data will be a cross-cutting theme throughout the syllabus, other important dimensions of self-determination in the digitally networked will be examined as well, for instance with regard to self-expression and participation in civic life and the digital economy, or relationship-building and well-being.

This syllabus also discusses the social contexts and conditions surrounding the notion of digital self-determination and see it in interaction with values such as digital solidarity and realizations of collective embeddedness that are in contrast to individualistic accounts of human flourishing. While the challenges and roadblocks to digital self-determination have taken center stage in public discourse, additional attention will be given to the manifestations of and future opportunities for self-determination across digital spaces and contexts, including efforts aimed at creating “trustworthy” data spaces, data cooperatives, and related models.

Blending theoretical and practical perspectives, this syllabus's materials and artifacts embrace global voices and experts from many disciplines and professionals.

Learning Modules


On each of the module pages, you will find an introduction, some external resources to explore, and content created during the sprint to help learners better explore the topic. Learners can explore it in sequence or just the modules that are most relevant (i.e. they are not entirely interdependent).

Module Topic Brief description
1 Beginning Inquiries In this module, we take our first steps in exploring that question through three very different lenses highlighted by the speakers. By the end of this module, learners should have expanded some of their thinking and consideration about the concept.
2 Digital Self-Determination- An Approximation This module introduces the concept of digital-self determination and explores its purpose and use in different contexts, highlighting examples from ongoing policy debates and initiatives. It will also discuss how digital self-determination relates to concepts such as digital autonomy, digital sovereignty, etc. The module seeks to create a working definition of concept and it’s dimensions or facets.
3 Contrastations: Digital Solidarity and Communality In this module, we critically challenge the notion of “self-determination” and explore alternative or at least complementary perspectives that put more emphasis on solidarity and the social conditions of digital self-determination. The session seeks to deepen the shared understanding of the social context and conditions - and assumptions behind - any form of “self-determination.” It will also examine the role of shared and “trustworthy” data spaces as an example of how digital self-determination and larger societal goals can be aligned.
4 Participation and Self-Determination in the Digital Economy While previous modules have focused on conceptual and horizontal issues, this module kicks-off a series of vertical explorations into different application areas of digital self- determination by examining what it means to be able to participate in the digital economy. The module highlights insights from youth and media research on creative expression and different forms of “capital”, and also addresses the relationship between digital citizenship skills and economic opportunity.
5 Digital Health and Well-Being In this module, learners will approach and learn about the chances and challenges of digital self-determination in health from a multidisciplinary angle – technology, medicine, law and policy. From a technical perspective, learners will explore which problems in medicine can and cannot be solved with artificial intelligence (AI). Using the COVID tracing app as an example, the clinical utility of AI shall be explored from a medical perspective. Within a legal and policy analysis, learners will consider how individual and public interests can be balanced adequately in order to foster innovation while also protecting individual rights.
6 Information Diets In this module, learners will engage with a major issue: the question how we can build an information ecosystem that allows for an information diet that supports the kind of informed choices digital self-determination hopes to enable. The module starts with a broad overview but then focus on the particular case of Wikipedia and open-access research. How do we both expand the knowledge that is available on the web while ensuring that the available content is not just from the institutions and communities with the most resources?
7 Trustworthy Data This module takes a deep dive at an organization that is explore issues of digital self-determination with real-world effects. In particular, the module looks at how to acquire a social license for data reuse through co-determination of data responsibility frameworks and the questions that matter when pursuing this work.
8 Creativity and the Social Contract In this module, we want to unleash the power of art, literature and imagery to imagine the Urban Social Contract of the future. As a backdrop we want to take the current and future space exploration and the possibility of establishing human settlements in other planets to creatively think about the urban/digital challenges that we would face in a city built outside Earth. Learners will hear from an expert in architecture and urbanism to learn how we used to think about the future of cities and the cities of the future and how city surveillance and power of control has evolved over time.
9 Reimagining Digital Self-Determination This final module highlights the ideas and work that participants in the original research sprint engaged with during the two months it ran in Spring 2021.  For learners, we hope this will prove a moment to reflect and consider how they have explored digital self-determination through various lenses (economics, health, media consumption) as well as challenged certain assumptions around the concept.  In addition to reflecting on what ideas we have about digital self-determination, we encourage learners to offer recommendations about the key considerations around this subject.



This project is the culmination of many different people's support, insight, and work.

Program Contributors

Juan Diego Ardila, Angelica Balanta, Satchit Balsari, Brigitte Benoit-Landale, Alessio Bertolini, Beatriz Botero Arcila, Tiago Carneiro Peixoto, Bernardo Caycedo, Fiona Cece, Sidharth Chauhan, Yves Daccord, Nighat Dad, Roger Dubach, Lance Eaton, Stefan Feuerriegel, Christian Fieseler, Mark Findlay, Urs Gasser, Sarah Genner, Satdeep Gill, Isaac Johnson, Jenny Korn, Malavika Jayaram, Megan Kelleher, Danil Kerimi, Reubin Langevin, Christoph Lutz, Sabelo Mhlambi, Bryan Newbold, Andrea Owe, Lorrayne Porciuncula, Nydia Remolina Leon, Jaclyn Sawyer, Adrienne Schmoeker, Nishant Shah, Wolfgang Schulz, Lis Sylvan, Lokman Tsui, Santiago Uribe, Stefaan Verhulst, Kerstin Vokinger, Andrew Young

Participant Contributors

Karolina Alama-Maruta, Kawsar Ali, Rachid Benharrousse, Hei Yin Chan, Ana Margarida Coelho, Leonid Demidov, Maria Francesca De Tullio, Alexandra Giannopoulou, Tomás Guarna, Martyna Kalvaitytė, İdil Kula, Zachary Marcone, Derguene Mbaye, Hillary McLauchlin, Samreen Mushtaq , Areej Mawasi, Narayanamoorthy Nanditha, Carmen Ng, Oluwatimilehin Olagunju, Temitayo Olofinlua, Mary Rhauline Torres, Jean-Baptiste Scherrer, Eraldo Souza Dos Santos, Christian Thönnes, Constanza Vidal Bustamante

Special thanks go to the German Federal President and Stiftung Mercator for supporting the Network of Center's Ethics of Digitalisation initiative.