the project

Personalised Communication:
A joint Communication and Information Law Initiative

The term personalized communication captures the fundamental change in, and challenges of, communication today: On the one hand, profiling and targeting users with customized messages can offer a solution to “digital” challenges, such as information overload, the resulting attention scarcity, and the fierce competition for users’ loyalty. Through personalized news content, search results and apps, consumers can be addressed individually to match their consumption patterns and profiles; health information can be targeted and shared to enhance specific life styles; political information can be adjusted to individual voter profiles. On the other hand, personalized communication can lead to manipulated or biased communication that, in the worst case, deprives users from access to more meaningful or more diverse information. And the personalization of information offers unprecedented opportunities for abuse by stereotyping, discriminating and sorting the society into virtual profiles.

This research initiative focuses specifically on the uses and implications of personalized information and communication for individuals and the society. Given the shift from “mass communication” to personalized communication, new theoretical approaches are needed to advance existing communication theories, and novel questions wait to be addressed. Does more choice in the information environment lead to a disintegrated, self-centered public sphere, extreme opinions, and polarized electorates? Or does personalized communication enhance individual knowledge and citizen engagement? Does personalized and customized marketing lead to better consumer choices or does it lead to manipulation and feelings of privacy violations? And how do citizens develop strategies to cope with these developments? Finally, what is the potential for abuse, manipulation and discriminatory differentiation?

These questions call for empirical assessments. Answering these questions and evaluating the individual and societal impact of personalized communication also requires normative benchmarks. What are ‘better consumer choices’? How far do and should citizens’ enjoy legitimate expectations of ‘privacy,’ ‘autonomy’ or ‘equality’? What are sufficiently ‘diverse’ media choices? And how do we negotiate the trade-off between more personalized, more relevant communication and users’ autonomy, privacy, and right to equal treatment and impartial information? These are questions that are central to the study of information law (including data protection law, competition law, consumer law, intellectual property law, media and telecommunications regulation and fundamental rights). These rules guide and inform the operations of businesses, users and governments, and they are designed to embody the fundamental values that form the backbone of our democratic society.

The objective of this initiative is to conduct empirical and normative research on the uses, effects, and implications of personalized communication in the areas of politics, health, and commerce. This project has also a strong outreach function, integrating the perspectives from other research groups within and outside the UvA, initiating international cooperation, playing an active role in advising policy makers and stakeholders and contributing to a lively public debate through the media and public lectures.