Reclaiming the Data Commons

by Padmashree Gehl Sampath and Paola Ricaurte

In recent years, ‘the commons’ terminology has made a comeback to address concerns of global commodification of resources. In data governance, it is being used to denote a paradigm within which citizens can regain sovereignty over decisions related to extraction, storage and use of data. It embraces, as per many accounts, stewardship, co-creation and social responsibilities (Hammerstein and Bloemen, 2016). Accordingly, free software communities or Wikipedia, are often suggested as data commons models, advocating shared governance of communities, open knowledge and social responsibility (Senabre and Morell, 2018). In this blog post, we take a critical perspective on this emerging notion of the data commons, and argue that such a notion remains deeply embedded in a West-and techno-centric worldview, focused on balancing growing unease and disenchantment of its citizens with data control by large companies. We argue that the construction of the data commons in this manner once again reinforces the historical marginalization of people from the South. We call for a radical overhaul on grounds that technology cannot fix society.

Every second, global reserves of data are smoothly flowing into the hands of a handful of large global companies, thus creating a vicious cycle of accumulation by dispossession (Thatcher et al, 2016). Large corporations develop and introduce as many apps, platforms and other digital products/services as possible in order to extract the maximum amount of data. The sale of one more app, product or service, promises not just capital gains, but also control and market power. As large global companies try constantly to keep all possible sources of data extraction active without any legal or regulatory limitations, the users experience a loss of freedom at the individual level, and the appropriation of the right to govern the data commons at the collective level.

In a capitalistic framing of the problem, these facts will seem insignificant, or will be subsumed under utilitarian debates on how the societal costs can be justified by the manifold benefits of technological change. There will not be much acknowledgement of how we all lose autonomy as we are reduced to specific data points in the digital universe to guide the next technological milestone in artificial intelligence (AI) or another related domain. In reality, however, this data centric existence deflects from a more human-centric paradigm where key parameters, such as preferences, demand, decision-making and social responsibility is transferred to machines that operate on statistics models and predictions. One can argue that this kind of usurpation of the global data commons is a problem for all, as reflected in the, ‘fair AI’ or ‘ethics of AI’ debates. In these debates, technological solutions (of design) are problematically being advocated to fix serious ethical issues in AI, with the underlying motive of preventing public regulation and accountability to society.

Although some recent critiques question these trends, the debate still remains one that is narrowly framed. It ignores how much graver the loss of freedom in the digital world is for those in the global South who are deeply embedded in the historical inequities and power asymmetries of yesteryears. For those of us in the global South, there are several degrees of loss of freedom because it is not about inclusion and voice within a established technological system, but it is about not having a choice at all, and these need to be unpacked. These degrees of loss of freedom depend not just on North or South categories or technological and economic dependencies, but on the role of technology in a broader process of domination where race, gender, ethnicity, disabilities, languages, and forms of knowledge production are erased and neglected. When these factors intertwine, the exclusion is far graver.

Let us begin with the wide appeal that underlies the current rush to capture data in new markets, whose value derives from how different and diverse it is. But that relation to extract value is far more oppressive because the activities and decisive votes in the data economy are not framed in an equalizing way. Not only does the discourse in the data economy currently take place almost entirely in the technologically advanced countries, it also relates mainly to the priorities of the West. The problems identified in this discourse are the problems of application of these technologies for these countries in a way that it satisfies their existing norms of democratic participation. It is taken for granted that fixing these technologies to acknowledge the diversity of the application spheres in the West will suffice to make them better for all, thereby perpetuating the notion of the South as a technology-follower and a technology-taker, and not a knowledge creator. Hence, while we surrender our data, we promote our own subordination.

Unpacking it further, the debate in no way acknowledges the levels of exclusion that come to be due to factors of historical marginalization — on grounds of race, gender, ethnicity, disabilities or language. For those that are excluded on these grounds, not only are systemic exclusions and marginalizations reproduced throughout the data economy, they are reinforced regularly by old and new power asymmetries such as those of the geopolitics of data control, techno-control and surveillance (Bauman and Lyon, 2013, Zuboff 2015, 2019). In their newest avatars, these power asymmetries reinforce violence against women, other races and cultures on grounds of supremacy, and promote deliberate linguistic exclusion. Fixing or reverse engineering technology cannot solve this. We need to begin by restructuring the underlying power dynamics that shape and reproduce domination through technological means.

The way ahead is not an easy one, or clearly roadmarked. What is needed is a process of reverse colonization structured to conscious delink (Mignolo 2007) from existing paradigms of knowledge epistemologies, technological pathways and models of industrialization that commodify our common future. We need alternate data visions of the future that fight the power asymmetries of digital colonization built on algorithmic and gender violence, class divides and racism. We cannot be passive participants in the debate, or even active ones, we need to work together and create an alternate discourse built around reclaiming what is rightfully ours. In that version of the data commons, all people have a choice: an equal vote and autonomy to decide how our data is accessed, used, stored or traded. Such a data commons should originate from, and be centred on, the needs of the data poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. Those are the ones who should have a voice.


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Thatcher, J., O’Sullivan, D., & Mahmoudi, D. (2016). Data colonialism through accumulation by dispossession: New metaphors for daily data. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 34(6), 990–1006.

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