Social license for the use of big data in the COVID-19 era

Commentary by James A. Shaw, Nayha Sethi & Christine K. Cassel: “… Social license refers to the informal permissions granted to institutions such as governments or corporations by members of the public to carry out a particular set of activities. Much of the literature on the topic of social license has arisen in the field of natural resources management, emphasizing issues that include but go beyond environmental stewardship4. In their seminal work on social license in the pulp and paper industry, Gunningham et al. defined social license as the “demands and expectations” placed on organizations by members of civil society which “may be tougher than those imposed by regulation”; these expectations thereby demand actions that go beyond existing legal rules to demonstrate concern for the interests of publics. We use the plural term “publics” as opposed to the singular “public” to illustrate that stakeholder groups to which organizations must appeal are often diverse and varied in their assessments of whether a given organizational activity is acceptable6. Despite the potentially fragmented views of various publics, the concept of social license is considered in a holistic way (either an organization has it or does not). Social license is closely related to public trust, and where publics view a particular institution as trustworthy it is more likely to have social license to engage in activities such as the collection and use of personal data7.

The question of how the leaders of an organization might better understand whether they have social license for a particular set of activities has also been addressed in the literature. In a review of literature on social license, Moffat et al. highlighted disagreement in the research community about whether social license can be accurately measured4. Certain groups of researchers emphasize that because of the intangible nature of social license, accurate measurement will never truly be possible. Others propose conceptual models of the determinants of social license, and establish surveys that assess those determinants to indicate the presence or absence of social license in a given context. However, accurate measurement of social license remains a point of debate….(More)”.