Data as a Social Good & Data Rights

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Citizens have become increasingly aware of how their personal data is collected and used by both Tech Giants and consumer brands to profile them and push ever more targeted ads for products. They’re also increasingly aware of how they are being manipulated through various tactics such as nudges and various biases that trigger us to purchase or spend more time on site.

With companies collecting such vast quantities of data, which is only increasing, have we reached a tipping point where we might consider some forms of data a “social good” and should we start to think beyond just privacy around data collection to include Data Rights?

Governments are, slowly, starting to catch up on the privacy issues and some companies, like Apple (although Apple has come under fire recently) and browser / search company DuckDuckGo are finding success in using privacy as a viable key selling tool for their products. Other browsers like Brave and Opera are doing the same.

Privacy is one thing. Understanding how data is collected and used is another. They go hand in hand, but we might also consider data in the context of it becoming a social good. By considering that data collected for certain purposes should be more transparent and that consumers should have far easier access to it than they do now.

It’s not to say that all data should be shared. Some data plays a key role in the Intellectual Property (IP) of a business and they have a proprietary right to keep that to themselves. Many businesses today compete on how they use data, especially in regards to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and while there does need to be regulation around how AI is used, some needs to be allowed to be private. This fosters competitiveness and innovation.

Author James Plunkett, in his new book, End State, suggests that all top-line data be made publicly transparent by default. That it could be made available through an online space. He proposes that a sort of Public Data Trust could be formed for governance. It is an interesting idea. It is similar to how Canada and the U.S. have public land trusts, so there is a model.

The idea of greater data transparency means adding this concept as part of human rights and thus considering data as a social good. A social good is something that provides some form of benefit to the greater public, like water. This concept has evolved in the Digital Age to include citizens coming together to unlock the power of technology and become agents of change.

This is in part why there is increased tension between private sector industry, especially digital technology companies, the general public and government bureaucracy. This tension is only increasing as more devices collect more data and both governments and industry increasingly rely on AI and advanced analytics tools for both products and services, commercially and for public services.

Much of the general public views data as simply part of overall privacy. While it is, it should also be seen in its own light. In one sense, the data collected on citizens by business and government is ours, or, yours. As certain data plays a key role in decision making, shouldn’t citizens have a right to understand and access their own data?

We have reached a tipping point where data is part of the very fabric of every day life in democratic countries. It is too, in autocratic countries. But States like China, Iran, Russia, have little to no human rights and China does not even have the Rule of Law. It is doubtful that they would ever consider data rights for their citizens.

How we might consider data rights within the context of human rights and a basic right of citizens is incredibly complex, but certainly achievable. What data is considered a social good would need defining and it would require industry and government to work together. It would also need to consider the influence of lobbyists as corporations are unlikely to support such transparency and will quickly throw up the IP argument along with stifling of innovation.

The innovation argument too, is complex. Economists Paul Heidhues and Botond Kószegi and Takeshi Murooka address the issue of what has become known as exploitative innovation which is when companies use data in a way that exploits consumers through behavioural manipulation. That is certainly not a social good. It is an area that few governments are aware of.

How we define what data can be considered a social good, what rights citizens have to certain types of data means law makers need to understand the complexity of the issue. Then there’s figuring out the technologies used to manage it all. Would a government run a Public Data Trust Datacenter? What are the oversight mechanisms for ensuring the right data goes there and how do citizens access it? How is it kept secure? How does one ensure that industry can still be innovative and compete.

Given how much governments and bureaucracy lag behind in understanding the impacts of digital technologies on our sociocultural systems, these issues won’t be resolved quickly or easily. But as more citizens become aware of how data about them is being used, they’ll likely demand more data rights as much as they’re demanding privacy rights.



Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital Anthropologist | Chief Innovation Officer | I'm in WIRED, Forbes & National Geographic etc.