It’s time for a Bill of Data Rights

Article by Martin Tisne: “…The proliferation of data in recent decades has led some reformers to a rallying cry: “You own your data!” Eric Posner of the University of Chicago, Eric Weyl of Microsoft Research, and virtual-reality guru Jaron Lanier, among others, argue that data should be treated as a possession. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and head of Facebook, says so as well. Facebook now says that you “own all of the contact and information you post on Facebook” and “can control how it is shared.” The Financial Times argues that “a key part of the answer lies in giving consumers ownership of their own personal data.” In a recent speech, Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, agreed, saying, “Companies should recognize that data belongs to users.”

This essay argues that “data ownership” is a flawed, counterproductive way of thinking about data. It not only does not fix existing problems; it creates new ones. Instead, we need a framework that gives people rights to stipulate how their data is used without requiring them to take ownership of it themselves….

The notion of “ownership” is appealing because it suggests giving you power and control over your data. But owning and “renting” out data is a bad analogy. Control over how particular bits of data are used is only one problem among many. The real questions are questions about how data shapes society and individuals. Rachel’s story will show us why data rights are important and how they might work to protect not just Rachel as an individual, but society as a whole.

Tomorrow never knows

To see why data ownership is a flawed concept, first think about this article you’re reading. The very act of opening it on an electronic device created data—an entry in your browser’s history, cookies the website sent to your browser, an entry in the website’s server log to record a visit from your IP address. It’s virtually impossible to do anything online—reading, shopping, or even just going somewhere with an internet-connected phone in your pocket—without leaving a “digital shadow” behind. These shadows cannot be owned—the way you own, say, a bicycle—any more than can the ephemeral patches of shade that follow you around on sunny days.

Your data on its own is not very useful to a marketer or an insurer. Analyzed in conjunction with similar data from thousands of other people, however, it feeds algorithms and bucketizes you (e.g., “heavy smoker with a drink habit” or “healthy runner, always on time”). If an algorithm is unfair—if, for example, it wrongly classifies you as a health risk because it was trained on a skewed data set or simply because you’re an outlier—then letting you “own” your data won’t make it fair. The only way to avoid being affected by the algorithm would be to never, ever give anyone access to your data. But even if you tried to hoard data that pertains to you, corporations and governments with access to large amounts of data about other people could use that data to make inferences about you. Data is not a neutral impression of reality. The creation and consumption of data reflects how power is distributed in society. …(More)”.