Data sustains the modern digital economy, from online services and apps, to our favourite websites. The collection and monetisation of data has created a new business model where we get access to, and use of, a whole range of services for free in return for allowing companies to track and analyse us. From maps and translation services, to email, we enjoy these free services because the companies that provide them get something in return: our data.
The data economy is still very young, but it’s already transforming our economy and society. It’s evolving extremely quickly, driven by the increasing technical capabilities of hardware and software. This proliferates its economic and social impact, both positive and negative. There’s a real urgency that this is taken seriously by regulators now, if we’re to ensure a net positive impact as we integrate this new technology and resource into our economy. To do this we must spread the power that data creates more widely, and create new accountability mechanisms to hold data economy actors, both public and private, to account.
The Internet was initially developed to meet the needs and requirements of the US military which ‘shaped the system into a powerful tool of government surveillance’. But the modern data economy is now being led by private companies seeking to capture data about us for their own purposes. Many of the techniques used by these companies have become part of the everyday digital economy without the consent of the users. From having every interaction with the digital world recorded and analysed, to being served personalised adverts, personal data is being traded around the world, and is subject to constant scoring by algorithmic systems based on inaccurate profile information. Democratic accountability is absent. Instead, people, collectively, need to be put at the centre of the future data economy to ensure that it serves and protects them rather than the interests of big business and government.
Many countries still have no legislation covering the use and processing of most data, with exceptions for medical and financial data and anti-discrimination legislation. This has left the private sector free to innovate without constraint and lead this radical transformation in the economy, ensuring its interests are being met at the expense of those of the public and society more broadly. We therefore have a data economy that’s primarily focused on meeting the needs of a small group of entrepreneurial capitalists. At the same time, these companies try to ensure that consumers still feel like they’re getting something, a free service or cheap goods (even though in reality, the ‘consumers’ are more like products for sale to advertisers from sites like Facebook). But we must be clear. As the data economy functions today, if our rights, as people, conflict with their interests, as companies, it’s the company’s interests that almost always triumph.
The tide, however, is starting to shift. The EU has started to set some ground rules for the collection and processing of our personal data with the implementation of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This marks a vitally important step towards governments being able to regulate and regain some control over a system in which data collection and processing has been growing out of control. However, the GDPR has not yet done much to curtail the power of the tech giants. These companies can rely on lawyers to navigate the complex legal structures of this legislation and avoid the potential restrictions it poses, in a way that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) cannot do. Nor has the GDPR created the clear accountability or the strong protections that we hoped for, since redress is still very hard to get and certain rights, like the Right to an Explanation, have an extremely limited scope.
The emerging fields of ‘algorithmic accountability’ or ‘ethics in artificial intelligence (AI)’ promoted by social scientists, lawyers, and computer scientists also have limitations. These are frequently conceived as purely technical projects involving, for example, the reduction of bias through more comprehensive data collection, rather than complex moral and political ones. But by focusing on the narrowly legalistic issues of fairness or accuracy, these approaches risk downplaying the larger moral and political implications of these technologies existing in society. As Frank Pasquale (Professor of Law at the University of Maryland and a member of the Council for Big Data, Ethics, and Society) highlights: ‘By trying to make these games fairer, the research elides the possibility of rejecting them altogether.’
We must ensure that the future data economy puts the protection of people above the interests of private companies’ quest for profit, or the government’s desire to monitor. The stakes are too high to fail. Multiple reforms and interventions will be needed to achieve a just and equitable data economy.
Here, we set out six principles to guide this transition:
Hardware, software, and platforms should protect users by default and ensure people have automatically enabled new features and protections.
Digital infrastructures should be based as far as possible on decentralised architecture to disperse power, while creating a more secure and less vulnerable network.
The narrative around individual rights and actions needs to be supplemented by a narrative around collective rights and actions. The individualised narrative is hugely disempowering because it excludes those people who do not have the time, ability, knowledge, or interest to take action to protect themselves from potential harm.
The data economy is too focussed on the monetary value of data. This is favoured at the expense of it being put towards the public and social good. Because of its ability to help us transform the economy for the common good, we must realise that the real value of data is not monetary, but social. If we fail to realise this, our data economy will always be susceptible to the whims of the private sector.
As the data economy enters more areas of our life, we need to ensure there is clear accountability for those collecting and processing our data.
Finally, we need to ensure that there is transparency within the system. This will help rekindle trust in the data economy, so damaged by recent scandals and leaks, and hamper big tech’s love of opaque business practices that characterise the digital world today, such as blanket data collection.
Image: Marcus Spiske on Pexels
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