Future Scenario: Data Rights
As part of our Our Data Future series, we explore a future where we have rights over our data
This time, Amtis travels to year 2030 to get a sense of how the data rights framework played out:
I just moved into a new apartment and everything was a mess. My stuff was all over the place and I couldn't find anything. I received a notification on my dashboard that a delivery drone had arrived with my package.
Data rights dashboard
The dashboard showed me a summary report with information about how my data was handled: which company processed my order, the type of data that was collected about me, why it needed that information, and who this information was shared with. I am getting more and more 'clean' reports nowadays, but ten years ago it was overwhelming to see these notifications. Few companies were good at implementing privacy minded data operations, and I didn't feel like I really had a choice about what to do with my data.
Something that pushed companies to be more serious about data protection was the fact that the dashboard could communicate with the regulator’s enforcement systems. Any time there was mistreatment of data, I would receive a notification which I could decide to forward to my regulator. I did that a lot of times! Regulators are more resourceful than they used to be, so when they receive notifications, they would start an investigation.
What I am most grateful for nowadays is that I can easily move my data from one company to another. When I moved to the new place, I transferred all my utilities to the new address with a click of a button. I kept my rates and didn't have any headaches for moving my subscriptions from one place to the other.
In case I don't like a company's services anymore, or they change their terms and conditions, I can move to a different company without second thoughts. Data portability allows me to pull all my data from one company and move it to another.
I think that's very healthy. Smaller companies used to be cut off from the market simply because they couldn’t get enough data and customers. With data portability, this challenge is more manageable. Their major task is to convince people to trust them with their data and not to give them strong reasons to leave.
My new apartment was empty when I moved in so I needed furniture. 3D printed furniture is a big thing now. You can find a 3D printing shop literally at almost every corner. I went down to my neighborhood's 3D printing shop to browse their catalogue. I needed an ergonomic desk.
To my surprise, they were not doing only furniture. They have a separate line only for open hardware - anything from kettles, fridges and washing machines to cameras, audio systems and laptops. They were advertising an Open Hardware phone. The guy from the shop showed me how it works. You basically choose all the spare parts you want and they assemble the model for you.
I went ahead and looked at the documentation for all the spare parts. It wasn't easy to understand all the blueprints of the different components and how everything fit together. I tried to make sense of it, but in the end I paid for technical consultancy at the shop before making the order. The phone I ordered is made out of 3D-printed material: it's 100% durable and recyclable material! And it's sooo cheap, I can't believe it! I just became the biggest fan of open hardware! These products are transparent, highly customisable for any privacy needs, sustainable and affordable.
Doing some research into this, I found out that the Open Hardware phone was prototyped during a futurathon. Futurathons are self-organised meetings run by a grassroots movement of engineers, artists, philosophers, journalists, youth, economists, lawyers, policy makers, environmentalists, and LGBTIAQ+. Years back, they started to design different bits and pieces of a new architecture based on strong, enforceable rights over data. Their goal was to design the People's Digitalopoly - a new digital world, which is not based on financial gains, but on social contribution and civic participation. They believed in a model which empowers people with autonomy over data and new ways of looking at our relationship to data.
I was intrigued by their vision and I basically spent the entire rest of the day reading their manifesto. I also discovered some of the first transcripts of their meetings where they were saying that put their bet on the data rights model. They realised very early on that the true potential of the data rights model could only be achieved with open protocols and interoperability. From that time, they spent ten years of hard work to develop the Web3 open protocols.
Big vision: Connect the decentralised with the centralised
Once the protocols were stable and reliable, the big vision was to connect decentralised services among themselves, but also with closed systems. They believed everybody should be able to run their own chat applications, but at the same time to communicate with others on closed services. The idea was for everything to be possible in the same place, irrespective of the centralised, distributed or decentralised architectures. This left me thinking about how easy it would be for me to use such an interconnected digital ecosystem and what it would mean for the way I live and do business.
Reflections on Scenario 4
Amtis' story brings a bold vision. Open protocols and decentralised systems create a new universe of possibilities. Groups have been running peer-to-peer networks for a long time, but decentralised file storage and moving towards a decentralised web, will change the way we look at data structures.
However, the most important lesson we need to understand is that there is no one size fits all. There are always going to be different enclaves. People will organise themselves in different ways for different needs. We need a system that allows for these differences. There is no reason why different models shouldn't be able to speak to one another. Nobody needs to be left out.
We also need to acknowledge that as much as devices and technology become cheaper, there are still going to be many people below the poverty line who won't be able to afford them. Amtis could pay for technical consultancy and order a privacy enhanced phone, but not everybody is going to be able to do the same. As mentioned in previous sections, privacy should not be a right only the rich or more resourced people can enjoy.
The data rights environment does not function in isolation. It seeks to provide people choice and agency over data; it doesn't mean shutting off from the world in a 'safe' bubble. It is an autonomous, fully interoperable architecture with built-in protection. It uses strong cryptographic mechanisms and anonymisation techniques to protect both individual privacy, but it also enables us to extract social benefits from collective data.
Fierce enforcement, open standards and interoperability protocols are key components of the data rights model. Strong protection mechanisms cannot rely on the individual having to make decisions at every step of the data flow. Protection needs to be ensured regardless of whether people know how to protect their data or not.
That's why decentralised privacy-aware, censorship-resistant protocols are essential. Amtis used a data rights dashboard for analysing privacy policies and to manage orders from companies that take privacy into account. As much as this sounds like a good tool, individuals shouldn't be forced to turn themselves in data vigilantes and be alert each time companies want to collect data from them. Also, it's not a good idea to rely on a device that's so intimately connected to your daily activities. In Amtis' case, we should be concerned about the producer of the data rights dashboard and how vulnerable it might be to attacks. Could this device be used for mass surveillance purposes? Who is making this device and its security measures?
Data portability not only offers the possibility for people to move their data from one service to another, it also gives startups and small companies a chance to compete on the market. Their challenge is reduced because people can choose to move data to their service. However, companies can come up with all sorts of tricks to attract people to their platform such as profiling, microtargeting or paying them for their data to join. Critics say that as long as we continue to encourage the market economy, a data rights system can only do damage control. A data rights system can only reach its true potential if other types of mechanisms and incentives are in place; and there are more options to explore.
More work needs to be done. Data captured by sensors and the vulnerabilities of IoT (Internet of Things) are a growing concern. We're far from solving Artificial Intelligence systems and we haven't even begun to seriously address biotech - which opens up an entire new dimension of challenges at an unprecedented level of moral, ethical, societal and evolutionary complexity.
All in all, we can still improve the data rights model, but it's the closest we have to a healthy, empowering and balanced architecture.
TO WRAP UP
Data rights as a part of a comprehensive system of protection
Stepping out of the scenarios and grounding ourselves again in today’s realities, people are increasingly aware and angry about how data is harvested by data monopolies. We are disempowered: we have lost control over the data we are generating, and we are becoming more aware of exploitative practices. In order to address the power imbalances that plague our digital sphere, I believe we need a system that provides individuals with clear, direct authority over their data. One that allows us to set the boundaries we want for our private space. But at the same time, we also need a system that enables us to extract the collective benefit from data.
A data rights system allows us to access, change, move or delete data; to know who’s collecting it, where it’s being stored, where it’s going, who has access to it, and for what purposes. Data rights cover both data that I voluntarily generate, but also data that is automatically collected or inferred about me. This includes location and browsing history, but also information that has been derived, inferred or predicted from other sources. In that sense, a data rights system offers a much more comprehensive architecture of control and protection than ownership. That’s why, when appropriate control rights are in place, we essentially don’t need property rights. It is true though that this model puts more responsibility on the user, to manage and take informed decisions about what data goes where.
However, principles such as data minimisation, fairness and purpose specification - if meaningfully implemented - have a strong chance to reverse this burden on the user. Privacy will not depend on how knowledgeable, informed or skilled the individual is, but on how well companies comply with their protection obligations. This way the individual will not be the weakest link, having to struggle to understand all the complexities. Instead, companies design processes and data flows with privacy principles in mind, which reduce the need for individuals to invest time and effort to understand how to protect their data but at the same time respecting agency and autonomy. Data rights are not the substitute for proactive implementation and protection.
On its own, a data rights system is not enough, it needs to be reinforced by protection principles and clear legal obligations for all the actors involved. Coupled with a strong technical and enforcement layer, the potential of the data rights architecture is enormous.
Choice and transparency on top of well-designed data processes
A data rights system also places a higher burden of responsibility on organisations. Data rights demand that organisations create a secure and protected environment for data processing and adopt a very transparent set of rules. Data processes will be built to comply with the principles of privacy-by-design and by default and data minimisation from the outset. Protection is at the core and data needs to be collected in a meaningful and transparent way. Organisations also need to invest in data portability so that data can be easily moved from one service to another - the same way phone numbers can be ported between different telecommunications operators.
Data rights offer a solid framework. They are the backbone of a healthy society, where individual empowerment and collective well-being is paramount. We need to advance and strengthen this architecture of rights with vigilant watchdogs and new socio-economic rationales — the muscles that keep the system in check. We need well-designed data processes and user-friendly data portability — the skin that ties everything together.
If enforced, data rights would challenge the business models of tech giants. They would have to rethink their business philosophy and redesign their business processes to implement privacy thorough operations. Instead of allowing data exploitation, meaningful enforcement would lead to a diversification of offers in the digital markets and more, genuine choice for individuals.
Develop new language
In my view 'data ownership' fails to address the main challenges of today’s digital economy. Ownership certainly doesn’t capture the full spectrum of related issues. An ownership system, even though it sounds like a good idea, is incapable of stopping exploitative data practices and monopolies on its own - it would simply allow them to adapt and persist. If we keep our focus primarily on figuring out data ownership, we face the risk of sidetracking the discussion onto a very questionable path. This is an open invitation to develop new language for clearer conversations and to better shape our demands for the future we want to see.
I believe the potential for the data rights architecture is huge, and there are many models to explore. Amtis' next journey is for you to imagine.