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We need to change who can analyse our data – as well as who owns it

Building a digital commons will require new rules to govern data analytics, as well as new models of ownership.

David Beer
17 June 2019
Image: Stock Catalog, CC BY 2.0

It could be said that we are moving into a new age of ownership. The long and destructive reach of austerity, the eroding faith in market based governance and the realisation that privatisation sucks energy and resources away from the public sphere have combined to bring questions of ownership back into focus.

A new think tank, Common Wealth, has only recently launched but is already beginning to set a new agenda for the future of ownership. In a long-read piece published to accompany the launch of the new venture, Common Wealth founder Mathew Lawrence sets out why ownership matters, and envisions its part in an ambitious reimagined future.

Within this broader agenda, Lawrence outlines six areas in which Common Wealth will seek to redefine ownership. One particularly vital set of proposals revolves around the building of a new ‘digital commons’. In short, as I understand it, the aim of the digital commons is to radically realign the ownership of the technological systems and platforms that are shaping our lives. The agenda is yet to be fully outlined, but it aims to move the digital realm from private to public ownership. In particular, it seeks to reclaim the ownership of the data that is produced as a by-product of our use of these media. It would then place these data into a new type of commons. This would guide power and profit towards more collective and progressive outcomes. At the same time, the creation of the digital commons would help to alleviate the negative, harmful and damaging uses of these technologies and curb attempts to target and manipulate us using these systems.

Instead, the digital commons imagined by Lawrence seeks to organise digital technologies ‘for the common good’. These technologies, as Lawrence observes, are currently facilitating a concentration of wealth and power. He goes on to conclude, rightly, that ‘many technologies appear directed toward ever-more intricate ways of extracting value – and often dignity – from people, as workers, citizens, and consumers’. This extraction of value, I have found in my own work, is often couched in notions of convenience, flexibility and ever greater efficiency.

Common Wealth is calling for a move away from private ‘enclosures’ – and particularly data enclosures – which protect certain interests and limit the democratisation of technology and its products. Lawrence’s concern is that tech companies create these data enclosures to protect their own interests and in so doing limit the benefits that might be derived. This has wide ranging implications, as the data harvested about us can range from our interactions on social media through to workplace performance, financial transactions, our consumption, location, fitness, and beyond. These data are now frequently used to create profiles, to judge and target us, to categorise us into different demographic or behavioural groups and even to infer or predict our lifestyles, tastes and preferences.

Carl Miller has recently done some work for the BBC using the new GDPR laws to give some glimpses into what data is gathered and how it is being used, and the depth of information is startling. Common Wealth’s digital commons, by changing the ownership of data and breaking open data enclosures, would seek to take possession of these data and to change the way they are used. This is an ambitious but important programme.

Beyond ownership there is perhaps another question that the digital commons will need to confront. When it comes to our personal data and its monetisation, the power is often in the hands of those who are in a position to analyse and therefore speak with our data. Put simply, we will need to ask the following question: when ownership is redefined, who will have the right to analyse our data?

My suggestion is that the right to analyse should be integrated as a central feature of any future digital commons. This could be used to ensure that the data are transformed into the public good that Lawrence proposes and avoid the continuation of potential harms. This right to analyse would need to be formally granted and should be open to being contested, challenged and examined.

The right to analyse should include controls on three key fronts: responsibilities, limits and stated intentions. First, the responsibilities for the use of data and its consequences and outcomes need to be made explicit in the agreements that are in place. In exchange for the right to analyse, lines of responsibility for privacy and outcomes need to be established. Second, the limits of the analysis of data should be clearly delineated. What is allowed under the terms of the agreement needs to be clearly set out. Finally, those wishing to analyse the data should state their intended aims – these aims then need to match with the methods and approaches to the data that are being analysed. If the aims can be established in advance then any attempts to move away from those stated aims can be challenged and any unintended outcomes can also be scrutinised.

These are just some suggested starting points – a more detailed system for facilitating and enabling the right to analyse data held within the digital commons would be needed. The right to analyse could then be granted on the basis of particular progressive or shared aims or needs, and in some instances might even be used to generate funds that would feed into the commons. Given the depth of data in the this imagined digital commons, it would present a wide range of possibilities for tackling social, environmental or health issues – but its analysis would need to be carefully maintained.

The power is not necessarily solely in the hands of those that own data, although that is crucial – it is also in the hands of those who speak with those data. In some cases this occurs where multiple data streams are brought together to facilitate insights, meaning that action extends beyond data ownership. We clearly need to ask who has control over the data, but we might also want to reflect and create regulative and governance interventions into who has the right to analyse those data. Limiting the changes to ownership might inadvertently neglect to find ways of governing those who analyse the data and therefore neglect to find ways to limit the impact of data informed judgment, decision making and inequality.

Building a digital commons will, as Lawrence importantly outlines, require us to think about questions of ownership, but it should also push us to think about what we will do once those lines of ownership are redrawn. In the case of data it will be important to think about how we govern analytics as well as how we redefine their ownership.

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