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What are the alternatives to either big corporations or big states owning our data?

By Ville Takala | Twitter: @vjtakala

For the third lecture in the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose’s British Library lecture series on “Innovation and the Welfare State”, IIPP director Mariana Mazzucato was joined by social critic Evgeny Morozov and entrepreneur Isabella de Michelis to discuss the pressing issue of data ownership in our increasingly tumultuous times. Starting from the premise that the current models of data ownership, where the rewards of the data economy are being captured by a very small number of dominant platforms, is unsustainable, Mazzucato kicked off the event by asking the two speakers to explain their proposed alternatives to the current situation. What are, Mazzucato prompted, the alternatives to either big corporations or big states owning our data?

Isabella de Michelis explained that from her perspective the core issue is that the excessive practices of the dominant data platforms is currently blocking, rather than facilitating the free flow of data. And since its free flow is the building block of innovation, our proposed solutions must go beyond calling for more privacy protection to changing the way we as users perceive of the value of our data. Building on the philosophy of Right to Monetize, de Michelis has therefore recently launched an app, Ernieapp, which gives users control over their data by both calculating a market price for it and allowing users to decide whom and whom not to share it with. de Michelis emphasised that whilst the longer-term regulation of the data industry is absolutely necessary, Ernieapp is an important immediate step in raising awareness and understanding amongst users about the central role that they play in the current and future data economy. Without an attempt to raise awareness, the current deadlock cannot be solved.

Evgeny Morozov, an ardent critic of digital capitalism for more than a decade, characterised the growing criticism of Silicon Valley of recent years as a Pyrrhic victory of sorts. He explained that whilst privacy and antitrust issues, which the debate has largely focused on, are indeed important, they have also diverted attention from the main concern we should have about the growing power of big tech, which is their entry into and potential overtake of welfare state service provision. In tandem with a coordinated political attack on public services, technology companies have made entries into core welfare sectors such as health, education and transport, arguing that their way of running them is not only cheaper but also more efficient. Morozov thus called for initiatives that, rather than accelerating the rhetoric of consumer sovereignty, involve a radical rethinking of institutions, both old and new, in ways that provide citizens with identities beyond that of the consumer. The dystopia that we must avoid, said Morozov, is one where our welfare states will be entirely run by private, rather than public, actors.

To hear de Michelis and Morozov’s proposals in full, and their thoughts on a wide range of topics, from regulation to the role of the European Union in providing alternatives to the American and Chinese data ownership models, watch the lively discussion in its entirety below:

Ville Takala is Senior Research Associate in Public Value and Digital Transformation at the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP), where he studies the digital future of the state and mission-oriented innovation.

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