Note — Jul 11, 2021

Everyone Should Decide How Their Digital Data Are Used — Not Just Tech Companies

Really good piece on data exhaust, surveillance, profit goals, public good, and data trusts. The authors, Jathan Sadowski, Salomé Viljoen and Meredith Whittaker, integrate two less commonly seen components to their argument.

These massive amounts of data do have societal value for research and understanding, but all of it is in the hands of huge corporations and collected purely for the purpose of their own profit. The same data could be so much more useful when framed otherwise and owned publicly.

They don’t simply talk about data trusts, democratic decision making, and data commons, they also list actual proposals on how this could be accomplished, including the disciplines to involve and why. The precedent of intellectual property in generic drug production and limited monopolies seems especially useful.

In our view, the current model, in which the digital traces of our lives are monopolized by corporations, threatens the ability of society to produce the rigorous, independent research needed to tackle pressing issues. It also restricts what information can be accessed and the questions that can be asked. This limits progress in understanding complex phenomena, from how vaccine coverage alters behaviour to how algorithms influence the spread of misinformation. […]

Instead of focusing only on the rights of individuals, a public trust can and should also represent the interests and values of groups affected by downstream uses of data products. […]

We propose a policy in which companies have a limited monopoly over the data they create and own. After a set period of time — say 3 years — these data either become a public resource or are eliminated.