The Ethics of Digital Collecting: Balancing Ownership and Access in the Digital Age

The Ethics of Digital Collecting: Balancing Ownership and Access in the Digital Age

Social media, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, blockchain, and digital collectables- all these technologies are transforming how we collect and store information or data. There's no limit to what can be collected, stored, and manipulated in a wide-ranging digital landscape.

But as digital collections become more valuable, ethical questions are increasingly being asked about who owns them and how they should be shared. 

At the heart of this debate is the idea of ownership versus access - do people own their data, or should it be made available to others? But before we answer this, let's talk about the digital collections people can create and manage from individual and collective perspectives.

Individuals have been creating digital collections for years, from music playlists to photo albums to vacation memories, but with the rise of data-driven technologies like AI and the blockchain, it's now possible to collect and store larger volumes of data from various sources.

This has given rise to digital collecting, where individuals can create personalized collections on topics that interest them using freely available or purchased data.

On the collective side, large organizations like governments, corporations, art galleries, libraries, museums, and universities are increasingly collecting massive amounts of data to understand their audiences better, create powerful AI algorithms, or produce and curate digital art.

This type of data collection is often done without the consent of individuals, raising ethical concerns about privacy and ownership.

At the same time, there's much to be gained from sharing data - access to new research, innovative products and services, improved customer experience and more. So how do we balance protecting individual privacy and ownership while allowing for data sharing that can benefit society?

The Need for a New Model of Shared Principles

The first sensible solution lies in finding new models of digital collecting that adhere to ethical principles.

This includes ensuring individuals have control over their data, exploring ways to share data without sacrificing personal privacy, employing data governance processes, and implementing clear rules on how long data can be stored. 

People ought to be educated about the value of their data and the potential risks of sharing it so they know what they're giving up when they provide their information. At a larger level, there needs to be an industry-wide effort to create standards and regulations that protect digital collections. 

A new model of shared principles must be centred on giving people ownership of their data while allowing them to access the value that can come from sharing it.

Digital collecting should benefit everyone involved - individuals and organizations - while protecting inherent rights and freedoms. 

The Propensity for Digital Chaos

The pandemic told us many things about ourselves, which is true about how we easily get consumed with data when we're overly exposed to it. It's easy to get lost in the chaos of data-driven technologies and forget about the value of ethics in digital collecting.

For instance, the way we consume media while stuck in our homes could accurately be described as "digital overload." When overwhelmed by too much data, we forget about ethical principles.

It's no secret that overexposure to digital information ultimately leads to chaos as the lines that divide right from wrong become increasingly blurred. But how do digital chaos and overload relate to digital collecting and data sharing? For one, it highlights the importance of ethics.

People must know their rights and responsibilities when collecting, sharing, and using data. As such, businesses should ensure that people are not overwhelmed by too much data or put in risky positions due to unethical practices. 

Digital Ownership Threatened by the Heed For Unconditional Access

In today's world, the amount of digital data is growing exponentially.

This means that the risk of losing personal data increases as well. A major contributing factor to this is the drive for unconditional access - too often, people and organizations are willing to give away their data in exchange for a service or product without understanding the cost they may be paying.

The problem lies in the assumption that data is easily replaceable and disposable. As a result, digital ownership becomes threatened as valuable information continues to be abused or misused without any thought of consequences.

We must remember that data is an asset and should therefore be treated with the same respect given to other forms of property. 

Case in point: the recent Facebook scandal. 

The social media giant was accused of not properly protecting user information, resulting in a privacy breach that caused significant damage to individuals who had no idea their data was being used in this way.

This case highlights the need for businesses to be more conscious and careful when collecting and handling consumer data so that everyone involved will reap the benefits while still having control over private information. 

The Curious Case of Digital Art Collection

Digital art provides a comprehensive platform for artists to showcase their work, and the emergence of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) or digital collectables has contributed to the growth of digital art collections.

Digital collectables have demonstrate how people can use digital technologies to create and collect tangible objects. It also serves as an example of how digital collecting can be used for good. 

The use of blockchain technology allows artists and creators to secure their digital works and certify ownership, providing a level of security that hasn't been seen before.

This is an especially important feature for those involved in the art world, as it helps to protect against counterfeiting and fraud.

So, even if they eventually give access to their works, they will still control them and how they are used, thanks to the decentralized and secure nature of the blockchain.

But on the other side, digital art collections also open doors to potential misuse.

As we've seen with other digital data, the ability to collect and store vast amounts of information can be abused if not done ethically.

While they have been an effective way to celebrate and commemorate artworks, digital collectables also show how digital harvesting can become dangerous.

By tokenizing works of art, collectors essentially own the artwork –– but attaching a monetary value to an artwork means that it can be used as a commodity and traded on the market, raising questions about ethics in digital collecting. 

Digital Media Ownership versus Consumption

We must also recognize the distinction between digital media ownership and consumption. While it is true that owning digital works allows for greater control over how they are used, consuming them does not grant any level of authority or autonomy.

We must all be reminded that user does not have rights over what they consume, so companies should respect this fact and be cognizant of potential misuse. 

We've seen countless cases of people using photos and videos they don't own in videos, advertisements, and more. This is a blatant disregard for digital media ownership and copyright law.

Companies should be held accountable for misusing content they don't own and respect the intellectual property rights of creators who try to create something special. So, while an artist is happy to own a digital work, they are less enthused to see it used in a way they did not intend or gain any compensation. 


The growing digital landscape has given rise to a unique set of challenges that we must address to ensure an ethical approach toward digital collecting.

We owe it to ourselves to create a system that balances ownership and access in the digital age while still protecting individuals' privacy and data rights.

It's not easy, but we can create a safe space for digital owners and consumers with the right mentality that'll ultimately translate to better ethical practices.  

Written by Joel Mark Harris