While at MyData 2019, I spent a lot of time in the same room. Room F was where a lot of the discussion on the economic dimension of the data ecosystem happened.
To my surprise, the MyData community seems to have a rough consensus that monetizing personal data is not a long-term sustainable way to run a data economy. The person that came up with the clearest formulation was perhaps Finnish lawyer Jussi Mäkinnen (not verbatim, I am quoting from my notes):
When copyright was invented in the 17th century, lawmakers conjured up a new property right, the right to own something immaterial. They knew it was a bit of a ghost, with little grounds in terms of the legal system of the time, but they wanted a way to reward the creators and their publishers. That, however, created more long-term problems than it solved. So, we have learned from the copyright story that legislating private ownership of personal data is probably a bad idea.
The parallel with copyright seems a profound intuition. On reflection I see how it is, in practice, a similar situation. Humans had been producing content before copyright, but when large-scale reproduction was invented in the 16th century suddenly there was an economic value to (cheap) copies. This created a conflict on who got to appropriate that value, and as a result a new legal subsystem sprang into life. With personal data is the same: they existed before the Internet and data science, but now they are worth money, and this creates another distributive conflict.
The chair of that same session, John Wunderlich, is Canadian. He remarked that Canadian First Nations have created their own set of principles around data management. The reason:
In the past, Aboriginal people have not been consulted about what information should be collected, who should gather that information, who should maintain it, and who should have access to it. The information gathered may or may not have been relevant to the questions, priorities and concerns of Aboriginal peoples. Because data gathering has frequently been imposed by outside authorities, it has met with resistance in many quarters.
The most enlightening presentation was Ingrid Schneider’s . She is a political science professor at U Hamburg. She described four main proposals around the economics of a data society:
- Individual data ownership + micropayments (Jaron Lanier, 2015).
- Data as public goods, managed by the state (Evgeni Morozov , 2017)
- Data as commons (Elinor Ostrom, 1990), managed by communities.
- Fiduciary trust (David Winickoff (2003 & 2005), where people commit their data to fiduciary trust, who governs the system.
Schneider discussed the relative merits of these four models, and made a case that Europe is currently “squeezed” between a Lanierian-dystopian America and a Morozovian China, but maybe Europe could (and should) develop a third way.
She went on to remark:
The discussion about property rights is an Anglo-American one. In the European legal tradition, we have the notion of inalienable rights: we have them, and we can never give them away. I do not support the idea of data as commodities."
This is a very powerful idea.
It does not make sense for data to be a commodity, because their value arises in the aggregation.
Which means they are bought for cheap (by companies) and sold expensive.