A new economy is emerging. And this new economy is powered by a new type of fuel: data. As the data economy becomes increasingly prominent, there are troubling signs that it is worsening existing power imbalances, and creating new problems of domination and lack of accountability. But it would be wrong simply to draw dystopian visions from our current situation. Technological change does not determine social change, and there is a whole range of potential futures – both emancipatory and discriminatory – open to us. We must decide for ourselves which one we want.

This is the first of four papers exploring power and accountability in the data economy. These will set the stage for future interventions to ensure power becomes more evenly distributed.This paper explores the impact of the mass collection of data, while future papers will examine: the impact of algorithms as they process the data; the companies built on data, that mediate our interface with the digital world; and the labour market dynamics that they are disrupting.

Our research so far has identified a range of overarching themes around how power and accountability is changing as a result of the rise of the digital economy. These can be summarised into four arguments:

  • Although the broader digital economy has both concentrated and dispersed power, data has had very much a concentrating force.
  • A mutually reinforcing government-corporation surveillance architecture – or data panopticon – is being built, that seeks to capture every data trail that we create.
  • We are over-collecting and under-protecting data.
  • The data economy is changing our approach to accountability from one based on direct causation to one based on correlation, with profound moral and political consequences.

This four-part series explores these areas by reviewing the existing literature and conducting interviews with respected experts from around the world.

The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal has made data gathering a front-page story in recent months. We have identified four key issues related to data gathering:

  • GDPR will not save us: Although GDPR will be an improvement for data privacy, it should not be considered a panacea. Some companies, especially global ones, will structure their business to dodge the regulations.
  • Privacy could become the preserve of the rich: The corporate data gathering industry may evolve to create a system where only the rich are able to afford the necessary tools and labour time to effectively maintain their privacy.
  • Privacy is an increasingly unmanageable burden: responsibility for managing data falls far too heavily on the individual rather than those who want to use individuals’ data.
  • Are we becoming a conformist society? Ubiquitous data collection, coupled with data never being deleted means we could be entering an era of self-censorship and ‘social cooling’.