The data ownership delusion

Gianfranco Cecconi

Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and do not represent the views of the Support Centre for Data Sharing or the European Commission.

The concept of “data ownership” 1 has been a recurring topic, especially in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal last year. 2 But is the concept of data ownership still meaningful? I believe it is not, or at least it should not be the focus of people’s attention. Talking about data ownership is not helping people understand what happened, and what they should do about it. Without entering the merit of the law, copyright, licensing and the rest of the boring stuff, my ambition is that — by the end of this short post — I will persuade you to agree with me, using a series of simple scenarios.

Let’s start with something simple. Forget about Facebook and the Internet and digital, forget even about electricity. Fetch an old camera from the loft and take a picture of me. You will find that your camera captures my image, easy right? Now, what would you be more comfortable saying about the picture that was produced by the camera? It’s definitely my image, but would you say it is my data? After all, the camera is yours, you’ve brought the film, you’ve offered to use your camera, and your skills as a photographer were key to take the picture.

Next, let’s go out for a walk now. You take a picture, again. Now you have my image, and my friends’, and the park’s. Is this picture my data? If it is, it would be at least my friends’ data, too. And what about the park? Can inanimate things be relevant to this conversation, too? If any nice public building was in the picture — depending on which country we are in — we may as well need to worry about that, too. You know what? Forget about the camera, just look at me! As you look at me my image goes through your vitreous and is impressed on your retina. I may try saying that whatever is happening on your retina is my data, but wouldn’t that be, at the very least, peculiar? Can it be that there’s something in your eye that is mine? Allow me to make it easier for you. My image won’t stop on your retina… Some magic happens, and my image is stored in your brain. Awesome. However, I am sure you won’t say that what is in your brain is my data, right?

Finally, let’s go back to our era of computers, networks and digital messiness. Let me update my status on Facebook with my picture… What about now? Do you still think that deciding who owns the picture is useful? Moreover, in the shiny digital world, data can be easily copied and distributed, and there may be ways for Facebook to inadvertently or willingly share it with others I hadn’t planned to. What then? We’re not getting anywhere talking about ownership. What if we tried “control” instead? Control: my right to tell you, or Facebook, or anybody else, what you can and can’t do with the picture you have of me. Like: — Facebook, you shouldn’t have my picture, delete that! In case you wondered, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) 3 you may have heard about in the news is all about rights. GDPR has no, zero, nada references to data ownership.

Before I close, allow me to reveal what the problem I really wanted to talk about from the very start is. As our world continues to integrate with new digital tools and platforms, more and more often — and at an accelerating pace — people are asked to develop awareness about novel opportunities and issues. Often, unfortunately, this happens on the occasion of some incident, as in the case of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. However, it’s not just about data, language is failing in supporting the discussion. In talking tech, and its impact on society, we sometimes lack the words, and — when we have them — we lack a shared meaning behind those words.

My argument around data ownership was just an example. Particularly for the ones of us in education or journalism, it is urgent that we develop language that is good enough to communicate and discuss these matters. Indirectly, the GDPR was a great push in this direction. The text of the law needed a definitions section (article 4) to be comprehensible, and it has become a de facto standard, specifying terms such as “data controller” or “data processor”. Even when the choice of words is not ideal, it is of paramount importance that we aim at developing a higher degree of shared meaning. It’s fine to say “my data”, but only as long as we all mean the same thing, and today we don’t. Dialogue can’t be just for the enlightened. If we fail, we won’t stop talking about data, artificial intelligence, the gig economy and whatever else, but understanding each other will progressively become harder, if not impossible. We need to build and develop a language that everyone can use and understand to communicate in this increasingly digital world.

For questions and comments, please visit our forum on Futurium.