2017-18 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity
Many of the classical debates about power and inequality centre on the topic of ownership. John Locke considered your “right” to own a thing as stemming from the addition of your labour to that thing. Karl Marx, of course, highlighted the intrinsic relationship between capitalism and the ownership of private property, with exploitation and inequality arising from income accumulated through non-productive forms.
In 2019, however, these notions of ownership may strike many of us as antiquated and irrelevant. Who cares about labour production when what constitutes labour has been radically transformed? Why debate systems of capitalism, some would argue, when alternative economic systems have collapsed? And why think about ownership, anyway, when what we own seems so obvious?
The answer is that when inequality is the dominant economic condition of an age, as with ours, these questions remain fundamentally important. The answer to the question of “Who owns it?” also answers the question “Who holds the power?” Moreover, it is how we answer these questions in relation to data – and its exponential growth in our digital age – that shows the value that these traditional debates still hold.
Facebook’s many infringements of data privacy have been a revelation, and a growing concern, to many. The fact that the profile data of some 50 million users was harvested by Cambridge Analytica, which whistleblowers say it used to target and influence voters in the US elections in 2016, shocked us. Moreover, the extent of “infringements” such as these appears to be growing broader and broader. Investigations into these practices by The New York Times and The Observer have revealed how the “trading” of what we believe to be our confidential data by large corporations that partner with Facebook is extensive, and increasing. Bing can see your friend lists, Amazon your contact details, and Netflix and Spotify your “private” messages.
What such revelations reveal is that the major contestations for economic power with multinational corporations centre on data, just as the major contestations for the political power of states centres on data. But if you were to ask the man on the street who owns his messages, he would likely answer that he does. If you ask the woman beside you who owns the photos she takes on her phone and posts online, she would reply that they are hers. Classical theorists like Locke and Marx would agree with this visceral view of “fairness” of ownership stemming from the fact of one’s labour being imparted in creating these assets.
However, the reality is that increasingly, the ownership of “our” data lies elsewhere. In some senses, our anger at Facebook for the infringements of our privacy by not seeking our permission to trade what we believe is ours masks a more fundamental point: firms such as these are treating what we think is our data as their own. Voluntarily, if unwittingly, we have signed away our traditional rights to it.
Some of this voluntary surrendering of rights has happened via misleadingly-named social media “platforms”. We see these platforms merely as conduits or vehicles for sharing what is ours. The reality, however, is that these platforms provide us with services in exchange for our data; for complete, or partial, ownership of what we upload and they distribute.
The point is that even in the digital age, classical debates on ownership remain useful in helping us develop our understanding of modern data practices. This is important, because ownership and exploitation exist side by side. The reality is that monopolistic ownership of data enhances the likelihood that people will be exploited. In South Africa, for example, the government’s highly questionable provision of people’s personal data to an external service provider assisting in the dissemination of social grants resulted in the financial exploitation of some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens through aggressively marketed services including unsecured loans and funeral insurance.
The challenge with the question of ownership is that it is not one that can be simply resolved. But when we focus instead on ideas of rights and privacy, there are interventions that can be put in place – such as the stringent practices ushered in by the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation – that do not need these debates finally decided. However, understanding and engaging with questions of ownership allows us to better understand our own behaviour, and our surrender, within this global system.
Inequality results from disparate ownership, and using these more traditional frameworks for considering data can help shed valuable light on a growing global problem. Perhaps, most usefully, it demands of us that we interrogate the systems we participate in, and how that very participation contributes to the creation of consequences that we would inherently believe to be unfair. Answering questions of who owns what will help us identify our new targets for change.