Covid effect highlights urgent need to rethink data ownership, think tank says

The way digital data is collected, owned and used must urgently be reviewed, to prevent big tech firms "dominating people’s lives for decades to come". This from UK think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, which this week set about highlighting the need for a new digital regulator in the UK as the 'Covid effect' sends tech stocks soaring.

The value of the six most dominant tech firms has soared to £1.5trn since the pandemic began. That figure represents an increase of 39% for Facebook, Alphabet, Apple, Microsoft, Netflix and Amazon combined. By way of comparison, the same period saw the average value of all stocks remain roughly unchanged in the US, while it fell 16% in European markets and 22% in the UK.

Big techs will continue to exert ever-increasing control over the most valuable elements of the fast-growing digital economy without determined action, the IIPR warns.

James Meadway, associate fellow at IPPR and author of the report, said: “COVID-19 risks further increasing the economic and social dominance of Big Tech, with stock market valuations skyrocketing as society becomes more dependent on data through homeworking and increased medical surveillance.

“This Covid effect means their power to affect and influence our daily lives is becoming increasingly removed from public control. It also represents a loss to us all, as most of the value of trillions of gigabytes of data, derived directly from us every year, is held privately by these companies instead of being available for the common good.

“We need to use the national regulation of data to develop a broader concept of a digital commons, with data derived from us held and used for the public good. A first step should be establishing a new Office for the Digital Commons, with the power to regulate big tech companies and enable shared and open-source use of our valuable data assets.”

Carys Roberts, IPPR’s executive director, adds: “Crises can accelerate and make permanent pre-existing trends. The pandemic is set to strengthen the role of data in our economy, and the power of tech giants who are most able to harness it.

“IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice argued in 2018 that data and digital infrastructure should be organised as a collective good. This paper sets out how that task can be achieved, through reform to regulation, management, ownership, and control, involving multiple levels of government.

“National and local policymakers must shape the economy that will emerge on the other side of this crisis, even as immediate measures to halt the virus continue. Failure to take urgent action now could mean we find ourselves lacking the tools or capacity to fix mistakes years down the line.”

A new digital regulator? (Source: Institute for Public Policy Research)

IPPR argues that the pandemic has caused society to become even more dependent on data, through homeworking and increased medical surveillance needed to combat the virus. They stand to gain disproportionately from this change.

The think tank argues that competition policy alone is not the answer, and that ways to pool, share and use data must be developed, so it can be used for public benefit rather than private profit. To achieve this the report calls for a series of changes by national government including:

-Create a new UK Office for the Digital Commons, with strong powers to regulate existing digital service providers. It would have a duty to intervene in favour of open data, and to ensure public benefit from all data.

-Establish a widely understood definition of a new kind of ‘data trust’, distinct from conventional trusts, and ensure resources are available to promote their creation and use.

-Protect valuable UK digital data, such as that derived from the NHS, from unfair international exploitation -- notably in trade deals after the UK leaves the EU.

It also recommends steps to bring the value created by data under local and regional control, as is already being pioneered by innovative cities such as Amsterdam and Barcelona. Local authorities, metro mayors and devolved administrations can do the same in the UK, the report urges, including by:

-Using their procurement powers, begin building a local digital commonwealth by compelling companies to share data as a pre-condition of winning a service contract, and to build the use of data for local public good into their guidelines.

-Pushing for locally collected data to be made open to use by others in anonymised form as a matter of course, as with TfL’s open-source data on transport use in London.

-Ensuring that newly developed digital infrastructure, such as smart power grids, is held under local and democratic control.

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