Data Ownership Should Be About Software, Not Lawsuits

Andrew Yang's "Data Dividend" and the EU's GDPR are not enough to put users back in control of their data.

AccessTimeIconAug 28, 2020 at 11:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 9:49 a.m. UTC

Shiv Malik is the author of two books, the co-founder of the Intergenerational Foundation think tank and a former investigative journalist for the Guardian. He currently evangelizes about a new decentralized data economy for the open source project Streamr

Who controls our data? The capture of so much information placed in the hands of so few is the most pressing technological issue of our age. The problem gives rise to weekly privacy scandals, has super-charged the growth of trillion dollar tech oligopolies and plays one of the most decisive roles in democratic outcomes. 

And yet, the solutions for how to resolve this huge power imbalance are still so piecemeal. One such offering is the open data solution; make governments force everyone to share their datasets with everyone else so all can prosper. But even Tim Berners Lee, the founder of the Open Data Institute, the most stalwart organization backing the open data manifesto, seems to have turned his back on this solution

The privacy movement has had much more success. New privacy tech – search engines such as DuckDuckGo, ad blockers, VPNs and even fresher software pioneered by the crypto community, such as zero knowledge solutions, have started to gain popular traction. 

Further victories have been won on the legislative battlefield. Europe’s GDPR set a policy standard for countries and companies around the world to mimic or adhere to. 

But if it’s control of data you are worried about, then the privacy movement suffers from a strategic flaw. 

The reason we have a data economy is because data is valuable. Not just in an overtly comercial way but, as we’ve seen with COVID-19, it is socially valuable, too. The generation and distribution of information benefits us all. 

The best the privacy movement can seem to do for us is either blunt that transmission of information or protect us from it being egregiously abused. What the movement has been unable to facilitate is to allow ordinary individuals to actively share their data with others and, most importantly, share in the proceeds of an economy already valued in the hundreds of billions. 

And that, in a nutshell, is why the vast power imbalances between “data controllers” and (to use the nomenclature of GDPR) “data subjects” remain with us. 

The data ownership movement, a third route to tackling how data is controlled in the 21st century, is now making a resurgence. I say resurgence because it has an academic and activist provenance going back at least two decades

At the forefront of this data renaissance is Andrew Yang. With real flair, the entrepreneur turned politician and crypto ally deftly used his presidential bid to promote the meme of data ownership to millions of Americans. And he hasn’t stopped there. 

This summer he launched his data dividend project, radicalized the thousands-strong Yang Gang to the banner of data ownership and seems willing to take the fight to “the technology company boardrooms” or, if that fails, to court.  

I’m all for data ownership, so I’m loath to knock anyone pursuing that goal. But there are more than a few problems with Yang’s strategy. 

We shouldn’t demand a tithe, we should take back control of our data.

Firstly, suing for data ownership rights through the courts seems unsustainable and retrospective. When there are so many companies and so many different types of data, how many class-action lawsuits can one organization launch? How long will this take, a decade? Longer? Do we really have that long? 

Battling corporate behemoths with a few scrappy lawyers might be the very stuff of Hollywood movies, but unlike the hardware of polluting factories or tobacco firms the tech industry is agile. These companies will move their data assets and change their T&Cs faster than the courts can offer a result. 

Yang says he wants us all to share in a data dividend. But dividends are given to owners of an organization. So is the end goal instead a tax like the governor of California suggested last year, where businesses would pay the state or consumers if their personal data was sold? 

Such a tax would only serve to legitimize the current power structures. Google will turn around to critiques of their monopoly hold and retort: “What’s your complaint now? We’re already giving back to everyone.”  Assuming these taxes aren’t eventually lobbied away, for Google et al., it’ll simply be one more cost of doing business – but it won't change how business is being done.    

But there is a way of fighting tech with tech that might also result in changing the underlying economic structures. We shouldn’t demand a tithe, we should take back control of our data. 

In fact, a handful of (mainly) crypto organizations are doing just this. ImagineBC, Ocean Protocol, GeoDB, Streamlytics, and Streamr (the project I work for) use software not advocacy to create a more sustainable and disruptive solution to the problem of data ownership and control. 

Swash, a browser plugin built on the Streamr stack, could become a contender to controlling how web search and url data is monetised. GeoDB is doing the same for the location data market. 

Although, just because there are digital solutions doesn’t mean people have legal ownership of their data. The fight for data ownership needs to be built upon legal rights and computer code. 

What the European Union has planned on this front could become a legislative standard. It appears EU regulators have recognized that GDPR might protect privacy violations but it has failed to deal with the economic consequences of data monopolies. 

As an unofficial Yang Ganger, I’m disappointed he has opted for using advocacy and the law instead of pulling upon his friends in crypto and blockchain to fight tech with tech. He has energetically and articulately drawn tens of thousands of supporters to the cause of data ownership. 

Let’s hope that movement doesn’t inadvertently end up making the problem even worse. 


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