Data as Property?

Blog by Salomé Viljoen: “Since the proliferation of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, critics of widely used internet communications services have warned of the misuse of personal data. Alongside familiar concerns regarding user privacy and state surveillance, a now-decades-long thread connects a group of theorists who view data—and in particular data about people—as central to what they have termed informational capitalism.1 Critics locate in datafication—the transformation of information into commodity—a particular economic process of value creation that demarcates informational capitalism from its predecessors. Whether these critics take “information” or “capitalism” as the modifier warranting primary concern, datafication, in their analysis, serves a dual role: both a process of production and a form of injustice.

In arguments levied against informational capitalism, the creation, collection, and use of data feature prominently as an unjust way to order productive activity. For instance, in her 2019 blockbuster The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshanna Zuboff likens our inner lives to a pre-Colonial continent, invaded and strip-mined of data by technology companies seeking profits.2 Elsewhere, Jathan Sadowski identifies data as a distinct form of capital, and accordingly links the imperative to collect data to the perpetual cycle of capital accumulation.3 Julie Cohen, in the Polanyian tradition, traces the “quasi-ownership through enclosure” of data and identifies the processing of personal information in “data refineries” as a fourth factor of production under informational capitalism.4

Critiques breed proposals for reform. Thus, data governance emerges as key terrain on which to discipline firms engaged in datafication and to respond to the injustices of informational capitalism. Scholars, activists, technologists and even presidential candidates have all proposed data governance reforms to address the social ills generated by the technology industry.

These reforms generally come in two varieties. Propertarian reforms diagnose the source of datafication’s injustice in the absence of formal property (or alternatively, labor) rights regulating the process of production. In 2016, inventor of the world wide web Sir Tim Berners-Lee founded Solid, a web decentralization platform, out of his concern over how data extraction fuels the growing power imbalance of the web which, he notes, “has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas.” In response, Solid “aims to radically change the way Web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy.” Solid is one popular project within the blockchain community’s #ownyourdata movement; another is Radical Markets, a suite of proposals from Glen Weyl (an economist and researcher at Microsoft) that includes developing a labor market for data. Like Solid, Weyl’s project is in part a response to inequality: it aims to disrupt the digital economy’s “technofeudalism,” where the unremunerated fruits of data laborers’ toil help drive the inequality of the technology economy writ large.5 Progressive politicians from Andrew Yang to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have similarly advanced proposals to reform the information economy, proposing variations on the theme of user-ownership over their personal data.

The second type of reforms, which I call dignitarian, take a further step beyond asserting rights to data-as-property, and resist data’s commodification altogether, drawing on a framework of civil and human rights to advocate for increased protections. Proposed reforms along these lines grant individuals meaningful capacity to say no to forms of data collection they disagree with, to determine the fate of data collected about them, and to grant them rights against data about them being used in ways that violate their interests….(More)”.