In Order To Regulate Tech, Let’s Talk Data Ownership

The most important question of 2019

We seem to support a culture that values post-destruction remedies. We favour solutions over preventative measures. We like to fix a problem once it’s there, rather than prevent it from landing in the first place. I have a cold right now — I wish I’d taken Vitamin C this winter.

A retrospective approach isn’t good enough. Big Tech knows it can push its luck until someone finds out it’s wronged us and challenges that. A meaningless $500k fine later, Big Tech returns to pursue its next quest in an unethical roadmap of expansion.

So instead, we need to shift the dialogue from:

How do we punish tech companies when they break rules?

to:

How do we discourage tech companies from breaking rules in the first place?

For me, the answer to that question lies in data ownership. It’s as exciting as it sounds, I promise.

Who owns our data?

Better still, who should own our data?

And how do we value data? Are some parts more valuable than others?

Data collection isn’t new

Most of us think that the US Presidential Election in 2016 was the first time a campaign used social media to target (and manipulate) vulnerable parts of the population. It wasn’t — micro-targeting, manipulation, and digital-based hate speech started long before. Check out the Obama campaign. See also: the Myanmar crisis.

The concept of data collection isn’t new, and people have been challenging it for a while. It’s just new on the news, which is why it feels like 2018 has been the year of the data breach. But if we look at the first data banks from decades ago, which would sell our information to insurance companies, we can see that people were calling for the creation of a central public database (available to everyone) even back then.

The difference now is the business model. We’re in a new economic era built on platform capitalism, based on surveillance and eyeballs and clicks. It’s a frightening place where ‘startups’ continue to prioritise growth over revenue and investors pour dollars into ‘potential’ like there’s no tomorrow. Which, at this rate, there won’t be.

Before, the process was built on data exchange, a reciprocal relationship between the business and the consumer. Now, it’s data extraction. There’s no dialogue, no consent, no sense of reciprocity. We’re missing that relationship we used to enjoy with the products we use.

2019 is set to be a huge year for artificial intelligence, which means this is becoming even more important. Mainstream articles tend to focus on Alexa — that it’s redefining how we talk to companies, view brands, and purchase products. Oh, and how it eavesdrops and then sends us eerily personalised ads. But from a wider standpoint, AI is transforming job recruitment, mental health (see: Mindstrong), and future cities. Take a look at Quayside in Toronto — it’ll blow your mind.

GDPR and the EU

Being from the UK, I’m still considering myself part of the EU (sniff). And until now, the EU has been lost in conversation surrounding data. While Theresa rambles on about how good a force tech is (which it can be!), the US continues to turn a blind eye to its precious Silicon Valley innovators, many of whom trample all over global citizens in what reminds us of pre-2008 financial institutions (think Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac). Meanwhile, China embarks upon a programme of mass omniscience through Social Credit Scores and street surveillance. I know Theresa’s wrapped up in Brexit negotiations and Christmas celebrations, but still.

The EU needs to wake up and smell the coffee. Intervention might conflict with the principles of neoliberal Europe, but we’re at a critical juncture and we’re running out of time.

The problem is, the EU seems to think Google is just a great search engine. It has proposed a ‘European alternative to Google’, but fails to realise that Google can’t be beaten with fancier algorithms. Google’s power lies in the accumulation of data, and it has accumulated so much data that competition is, well, quite impossible. Combine that with consumers’ desires for an efficient search engine — which Google provides — and a European Google substitute is even less viable.

What we need is transparency, and this is what the EU can become a leader in. The door is open for the EU to establish its position as the perfect balance between US laxity and Chinese omniscience. The EU can drive the movement for tech regulation — GDPR has been a good first move.

If we want to make further progress, we need to decide how we view data. And once we’ve done that, we need to decide how we view data ownership. There have been several proposals on this.

So, how should we view data ownership?

Evgeny Morozov, a prolific writer on the social and political implications of tech, argues that there are three options in the future of data ownership:

  1. Maintain the status quo. Facebook and Google will continue to own all data and use it as desired.
  2. Change the status quo (majorly). Citizens will be able to own and sell their data as desired.
  3. Change the status quo (moderately). Citizens will own their data but be unable to sell it.

There’s also a fourth — state ownership. Although tech companies are dedicated to fighting against becoming ‘utilities’ (because utilities = public ownership = regulation), these platforms are indispensable and are therefore vulnerable to state ownership. Can we see a future publicly-run social network?

Whatever the answer, Morozov argues that companies should be required to ask for permission to collect data. In this case, all future legal framework will force companies to request data usage, and depending on how we choose to view data ownership, companies can shape their actions based on that.

So until we answer: who should own our data? there really is no chance in hell we can design an effective system of oversight and a strong legal framework.

Let’s hope this question sits at the forefront of our minds in 2019.