The exploitation of data, particularly personal data, has become central to the digital economy over the last twenty years. Dominant technology corporations have accumulated enormous levels of economic power through the collection and use of data. We can think of this digital value creation as ‘data rentiership’, understood as the capture or extraction of value through ownership and control of data as an asset. In popular terms, this is often expressed using the phrase: “If something is free, then you are the product.”
There’s been a proliferation of data policy debates and proposals in response to the growth of extractive data practices on issues such as regulation, governance, and data sharing, yet many of these suffer from an impoverished vision and lack of ambition.
We need to think bigger and bolder.
Historically, efforts to regulate and govern the data economy have focused on preventing or correcting harms and rights violations. They have rarely attempted to articulate or build a more transformative and ambitious vision for the future of the data economy. The question we need to be asking is: Can we imagine a world in which current power structures are rebalanced and in which data is used for the benefit of people and society?
There are significant challenges for anyone looking to work toward such a vision. There are currently few practical examples of new models and institutions to draw on. There is also little political or societal leadership and a wider lack of appetite for making a more radical break with the status quo through new proposals, initiatives, and experiments.
Defending rights is essential, but so is building a transformative vision.
Civil society organisations working on data policy are often operating in a reactive mode, doing the vital work of fighting against rights abuses, responding to legislative proposals, and trying to prevent harmful practices. But rarely do they have the time, capacity and resources to pause and ask the question: What would a more ambitious vision for data, people and society look like?
When I was working on defending digital rights, I saw lots of examples of positive impact being achieved over the short term. But I also had the sense that there were deeper, structural problems and fundamental questions of power that needed addressing over the long term. We need much more than a collection of short term wins, we need transformative changes to the systems of power.
The current digital landscape has developed into one that is exploitative, short-sighted, and disempowering, but it doesn’t have to be this way. There is now an urgent need for a comprehensive and transformative vision for data, one that can serve as a North Star, directing our collective efforts and encouraging us to think bigger and be bolder.
Where is change needed?
At the Ada Lovelace Institute, an independent research institute, we set up the Rethinking Data project with the aim of providing a more ambitious vision for data use and regulation that can deliver a positive shift in the digital ecosystem towards people and society.
Our expert working group sought to explore the relationship people have with data and technology, and to look towards a positive future that would centre governance, regulation and use of data on the needs of people and society, and contest the increasingly entrenched systems of digital power.
The group considered a broad range of potential interventions. Through a process of analysis and distillation, that landscape narrowed to four areas for change: infrastructure, governance, institutions, and democratic participation.
Interventions to rebalance power
Our upcoming research (to be published in October) highlights and contextualises four cross-cutting interventions that can enable a richer set of possibilities for data use and regulation and shift power away from dominant companies. They offer a path towards addressing present digital challenges and open up the possibility for a new digital ecosystem to emerge.
First, we need a new type of infrastructure that enables competition and meaningful choice for users. To achieve this we need to open up the dominant platforms by implementing interoperability measures.
Second, we need new data governance schemes to reclaim control of data from dominant companies and reduce proprietary siloing. ‘Access to data mandates’ can help increase scrutiny and accountability and offer a way to channel company data in the public interest.
Third, we need new institutions capable of rebalancing power from large corporations towards individuals and collectives. These could include, for example, non-commercial (possibly even public) institutions as well as alternative data governance models (such as data trusts, data cooperatives, data commons and other similar structures).
Fourth, we need more effective, inclusive and representative policymaking to make sure that the values, experiences and perspectives of those affected by data-driven technologies are represented and accounted for. Public participation should be an essential component of tech policymaking and there are multiple approaches to making such participation meaningful—from panels or juries of citizens, public dialogues, participatory co-design or deliberative assemblies.
These interventions are intended as ‘prototypes’ to help us think about potential ways forward, open up important questions for further debate (without rushing to provide immediate answers), and serve as a starting point for more mature, transformative ideas.
New ideas and models are emerging, but the ecosystem needs nurturing and support.
Making these positive changes a reality depends on the support and collaboration of policymakers, researchers, civil society organisations, and industry practitioners.
Efforts to reconceptualise the digital ecosystem will need to be sustained collectively and thoroughly, with an understanding that elaborating on strategies for the future involves constant experimentation, adaptation and recalibration. Ongoing initiatives such as the Data Values Project and the Future of Data Challenge are already playing an important role by stimulating debate and bringing forward new ideas and bold visions.
We hope the broader civil society and research community will engage with—and, crucially, iterate on—our propositions as part of the collective effort to rethink data and the digital economy.
We’re eager to inspire forward discussions, insights and reflections on what new types of infrastructure, governance, institutions and regulation are needed to reshape the digital ecosystem and please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org to continue the conversation with the Ada team. For updates and more information about our work, please subscribe to our newsletter and join the conversation on Twitter.