Data Commons – Technology for the People

Data Commons – Technology for the People

Most debates about data in India are about privacy. This is understandable, as surveillance is a major risk for anyone engaging in dissent. However, another aspect of data – its use as an economic resource – unfortunately, does not get as much coverage.

Data is increasingly becoming an ingredient that drives commercial and other economic decisions. Data helps decide what to produce, where to produce, whom to sell to and at what price. Our behavioural data – the videos we watch, the pictures we scroll past, the places we visit – is used to determine consumer preferences, predict loan repayment chances, price goods and services dynamically, etc. Other data – such as agricultural data or transport data – is used to optimise production and distribution. Such data, when used to develop artificial intelligence, is also leading to automation and job losses at an alarming pace. 

The reaction to a rapidly digitalising economy cannot be to deny data use. The use of data brings in unprecedented efficiency and is transforming entire sectors. In fact, 7 out of the 8 largest companies by market capitalisation have business models that primarily rely on data. The progressive response to the digitalisation of the economy, just as to any development of technology, has to be to use this technology for the public good. 

There are certain kinds of data that we should not at all use for economic purposes, as its collection can be harmful to individuals and communities. But beyond such sensitive data, and still employing privacy safeguards, we have to be able to use the value of data outside the dominant neoliberal paradigm. Important public services can be built using data and algorithms based on data. For example, a city’s public transport can be made more effective and responsive to commuter needs through the use of transport data. Optimising bus stop locations, determining routes that maximise public value, live location information of public transport vehicles – these are all improvements that can be brought about through the use of data. Public alternatives to private data-based services can compete on efficiency only through the use of data. For instance, a publicly owned and run alternative to Swiggy cannot achieve significant market share without using data to match riders and restaurants.

There are, however, impediments to building these public services. Corporations that collect vast amounts of data keep it to themselves and are building dominant positions in many markets and sectors. Monsanto-Bayer has large amounts of agricultural data that it can use to market agricultural inputs, among many other uses. A public service to rival Monsanto-Bayer would need that data – data about farmers and farms, to be used for farmers’ benefit. However, the status quo is that data today belongs to whoever collects it, and so farmers’ data is Monsanto-Bayer’s data. Data ownership rights need to be defined in a manner that is beneficial to the people about whom the data is. Since one person’s data is usually useful only when seen in relation to other data points about other persons, data should be defined as a collectively owned resource. Whether this means data is a  public resource or a resource owned by a specific community, depends on the kinds of data and the uses it is put to. Again, there will always be categories of data that will be personal-private and not open to economic use.

Given the US-China tech wars, it is even more important to develop domestic alternatives to digital services provided by companies from both these countries. Google, at the behest of the US government, recently suspended some crucial mobile software and application services to Huawei. Chinese alternatives to US platforms are a clear threat to US dominance in technology. Learning from these developments, India, by developing its own platforms through collective data ownership, can avoid undue reliance on any world powers for goods and services using data.

One impediment to creating such data commons, or even to preventing private monopolies in the digital economy, is international agreements that formalise this enclosure of data. Efforts at the WTO, as well as free trade agreements like the US Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), contain rules in their e-commerce chapters that entrench privatisation of data. For example, to enforce collective data ownership and to regulate data companies, governments need to have the power to require localisation of data and examine source codes. These agreements, when signed, would make such requirements illegal. Thus governments would be forced to accept free cross-border data flows – which, for developing countries, would mean free extraction of a valuable resource. Governments would also face an inability to examine source codes for bias and an erosion of the crucial role of the state in e-authentication and e-payments services. 

Therefore, progressive movements from all sectors – peasant organisations, trade unions, youth organisations fighting unemployment, teachers’ unions, and so on – need to rally against such default data related rules in these international agreements and demand collective data ownership through data commons. The power of technology must reside with the people, and digital technology is the next frontier where this battle has to be waged.

(Jai Vipra works at IT for Change on research and advocacy around digital economy.)