Note — Nov 01, 2020

Data as Property?

Ownership of data and data as the new plutonium are topics I’ve included here a number of times before, this piece by Salomé Viljoen is an excellent review of the various viewpoints. She distinguishes between propertarian (people should own their data) and dignitarian (control of your data is a basic human right) concepts of data governance, lists and critiques the reasons for and problems with each, with clear explanations of why in each case. Viljoen closes with her (and my) preferred way of tackling the problem; the democratic alternative, looking at data as a commons managed for the community. The idea of scale here is especially important, the scale of the current players, the scale in number of users, and the scale in the amount of data. Common infostructures make sense for some of the same reasons as public infrastructures. Data as commons has come up more often at city level but this remark grasps my attention: “US Census and its statistical agencies, which adhere to strong purpose limitations and confidentiality rules, may be expanded into more general bodies for the governance of data.” I don’t know if it’s necessarily the answer but reframing an existing nation-level agency is a good way to think about the issue.

Finally, data exchanges generate considerable privacy externalities: information about one person may well be used to make inferences applied to another. […]

Like private technology companies now, systems for social welfare provision—be it healthcare, housing, or a basic income—would almost certainly require rendering individuals legible, in some instances against their will. But they would do so in service of vital democratic welfare state endeavors rather than private gain. […]

One path forward reconceives data about people as a democratic resource. Such proposals view data not as an expression of an inner self subject to private ordering and the individual will, but as a collective resource subject to democratic ordering. […]

Conceiving of data as a democratic resource may thus better achieve relational and distributive justice and point the way towards the positive and essential role data infrastructures will play in any effective state welfare provision.