Please, please, please: stop saying that the data is mine, or yours, or the dog’s

Gianfranco Cecconi
Apr 19, 2018 · 6 min read

A few weeks have passed since the the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and we’re still dealing with its aftermath. The discussion of what happened is going on and on and on, new opinion pieces are in the news every day, and journalists have deconstructed every statement in Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to US Congress, during which we were kept being reminded that we users own the data we put on Facebook. According to my quick calculations, the concept of “data ownership” has been used 20 times during the Senate hearing and 19 in the House one.

But is data ownership meaningful?

I believe it is not, or at least it should not be the focus of people’s attention. Talking about data ownership is not helping people understand what happened, and what they should do about it. Without entering the merit of law, copyright, licensing and the rest of the boring stuff, my ambition is that — by the end of this short illustrated blog post — I will persuade you to agree with me, using a series of simple scenarios.


Let’s start with something simple. Forget about Facebook and the Internet and digital, forget even about electricity. Fetch an old camera from the loft, and take a picture of me, go on...

Your camera captures my image, easy uh? Now, what would you be more comfortable saying about the picture that was produced by the camera?

It’s definitely my image, but would you say it is my data? After all, the camera is yours, you’ve brought the film, you’ve offered to use your camera, and your skills as a photographer were key to take the picture (also because I have no idea how to use that thing, how old do you think I am?!?)

Next, let’s go out for a walk now, it’s sunny outside…

You take a picture, again. Now you have my image, and my friends’, and the park’s. Is this picture my data? If it is, it would be at least my friends’ data, too.

And what about the park? Can inanimate things be relevant to this silly conversation, too? If any nice public building was in the picture — depending on which country we are in — we may as well need to worry about that, too.

You know what? Forget about the camera, just look at me!

Ok, you are looking at me now — glad you like what you see! — and my image goes through your vitreous and is impressed on your retina.

I may try saying that whatever is happening on your retina is my data, but wouldn’t that be, at the very least, peculiar? Can it be that there’s something in your eye that is mine?

Allow me to make it easier to you. My image won’t stop on your retina…

Some magic happens, and my image is stored in your brain. Awesome. However, I am sure you won’t say that what is in your brain is my data, right?

Finally, let’s go back to our era of computers, networks and digital messiness. Let me update my status on Facebook with my picture…

What about now? Do you really still think that deciding who owns the picture is useful? Moreover, in the shiny digital world, data can be easily copied and distributed, and there may be ways for Facebook to inadvertently or willingly share it with others I hadn’t planned to. What then?

We’re not getting anywhere talking about ownership. What if we tried “control” instead? Control: my right to tell you, or Facebook, or anybody else, what you can and can’t do with the picture you have of me. Like: — Facebook, you shouldn’t have my picture, delete that!

In case you wondered, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) you may have heard about in the news is all about rights. GDPR has no, zero, nada references to data ownership. Even the methusalems at the UK House of Lords have recently understood that, and abandoned the term in the recent “AI in the UK: ready, willing and able?” report (check article 62 in chapter 3). Their average age is 69: if they can get it, you can get it


Before I close, allow me to reveal what the problem I really wanted to talk about from the very start is.

As their world integrates with new digital tools and platforms, more and more often — and at an accelerating pace — people are asked to develop awareness about novel opportunities and issues. Often, unfortunately, this happens on the occasion of some incident, as in the case of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It’s not just about data.

However, language is failing in supporting the discussion. In talking tech, and its impact on society, we sometimes lack the words, and — when we have them — we lack a shared meaning behind those words.

My argument around data ownership was just an example. Particularly for the ones of us in education or journalism, it is urgent that we develop language that is good enough to communicate and discuss these matters.

Indirectly, the GDPR was a great push in this direction. The text of the law needed a definitions section (article 4) to be comprehensible, and it has become a de facto standard, specifying terms such as “data controller” or “data processor”. Even when the choice of words is not ideal, it is of paramount importance that we aim at developing a higher degree of shared meaning. It’s fine to say “my data”, but only as long as we all mean the same thing, and today we don’t.

Dialogue can’t be just for the enlightened. If we fail, we won’t stop talking about data, artificial intelligence, gig economy and whatever else, but understanding each other will progressively become harder, if not impossible.

“If a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him.”

— Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1953

… and I haven’t even started talking about the blockchain! 😁

Find full credits and licensing information about the images used in this article at https://github.com/Digital-Contraptions-Imaginarium/the-data-ownership-delusion .

The MyData Conference is a great place to talk about these matters. In 2018 it’s taking place in Helsinki, Finland, August 29th — 31st. Join us and — if you want to help developing a shared language for data and beyond — come and talk to Gianfranco or anyone from Digital Contraptions Imaginarium. See you there!

Gianfranco Cecconi

Written by

I’m someone with a few ideas here and there.

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