We want data to work better for everyone.
This means that individuals need to be able to access their data in digital form, easily and without hindrance.
We are engaging with businesses, public bodies, researchers and individuals to develop practical tools that can make it increasingly straightforward for you as a citizen of this new digital world to claim your data.
Data is taking an increasingly important place in our everyday lives. It is a form of energy, one that increasingly powers the information age. And it is renewable! But if data is to serve humanity, individuals need to have access to their data, so that they can act like citizens of this new digital society.
Newly emerging technology allows individuals to hold their personal data on private micro-servers, allowing them to take private control of their data. What we need now is companies to share the data they hold on us. Our campaign aims to persuade and work with large data holders (large corporations and public bodies) to do just that – to provide individuals with digital access to their own digital personal data.
We are timing this campaign to coincide with the arrival of the General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”), an EU regulation which comes into force in the UK in May 2018. This law gives citizens enhanced rights to access and move their data. We intend to push for law and practice to come together to give new powers to private citizens.
Join our campaign, as an individual or an organisation, and help shape the new digital society!
Data: a new form of renewable energy
Fortunes have been made from it and dynasties built on it. Wars have been fought over it, and regimes overthrown to secure access to it. It was the single most valuable resource in the industrial age. We’re talking about crude oil, of course.
Although oil has been known to humans for thousands of years, it came into its own only in the 19th and 20th centuries when new ways of extracting and using it were discovered. It was the key enabler of the industrial age, as an essential ingredient in the production of everything from clothing, housing and food to automobiles, weapons and pharmaceutical drugs. Oil has seeped into our daily lives and we have become dependent on it. We’re hooked!
Now in the 21st Century, another less tangible item is set to replace it as the world’s most valuable resource – data. New ways of extracting and using data have emerged in the early part of the 21st century, and is the new oil on which the information age is being built. Data is potentially more valuable than oil because, unlike oil, it is a renewable resource, which doesn't lose value when shared.
Over the coming years, data along with the technology that manipulates it, promises to play an increasing role in all our lives, as smart homes, self-driving cars, integrated public transport, wearable technology and more enter the mainstream. There is predicted to be an exponential growth in the amount of data in existence, as new ways to gather it and manipulate it emerge.
Much of this data, at its core, will be about us as individuals – our personal information, our property, our likes, our friends and our habits. Data about how we live our lives can make us richer, healthier, and happier. It can give us cheaper groceries and reduce the cost of car insurance. It may also be used by others to communicate with us, to subtly influence us and to make decisions that affect us. What is certain is that, as with oil, it will shape us and our society. Whether this is for good or bad will be up to us.
We are seeing the emergence of a new society
A new, digital society is emerging, a terra nullius or no-man’s land, ungoverned and ripe for exploitation. The laws and rules that applied to the physical world were not designed for this new society. Lawmakers are struggling, and will continue to struggle, to keep up with the pace of change. Questions such as “what is personal data?” and “has someone consented to be contacted?” are constantly having to be reviewed as technology and practice advances. For the moment, it is not traditional law-makers but those with the vision and the means who are shaping this new world.
In this digital world, a land grab is underway, just as opportunists grabbed land for oilfields in the late 19th century. Already the five most valuable companies in the world - Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft - deal, primarily, in data. They are valued based not on their assets but on the power that comes from their ability to gather and manipulate massive quantities of data and use it for their own ends. Large corporations are increasingly recognising the value of data and starting to compete for access to it. The stakes are high - the global empires of the future are being established as we write.
A key question for us, as citizens of this new society, is whether we want data to serve us or whether we will serve it. We have already seen what can happen when technology gets out of control. The financial crisis in 2007, was precipitated by trading decisions made by machines which caused stock exchanges to crash. When major societal systems (financial systems, healthcare, even weapons) are increasingly based on data, it is sobering to consider what could could happen if they go out of control.
“Our AI (artificial intelligence) systems must do what we want them to do” says the open letter signed by Stephen Hawking and many other eminent scientists in 2017, when making an argument that AI research must be focused on achieving “societal benefit”. The same applies to the use of data. It must serve humanity as a whole.
A new vision for a new society
“The promotion of human flourishing is the overarching principle that should guide the development of systems of data governance.” Joint report on data governance by British Academy and Royal Society (2017)
In the industrial age, most of the oil and the means to exploit it was owned and controlled by a relatively small number of individuals, organisations and states. The vast majority of the population served as passive consumers of the products that these owners produced. At present we are on course for a similar concentration of wealth and power in the information age.
Some may be broadly happy with the idea of companies such as Apple and Amazon controlling our data and then using it to sell us goods. But what about when it comes to healthcare, say? Do we want such powerful technologies to be controlled by profit-driven corporations?
Up to now, much of the public discussion around data has focused on the question of data privacy. As long as their personal data is not sold to criminals, why should people worry about who controls and uses their data? But there are bigger issues to worry about and in particular, who controls the data and what rights do we as citizens have to access it and use it.
We believe that technology should be controlled and used by all for the good of all. This means distributed ownership and control. The digital society should be governed like a network, with power and decision-making shared across the network, and not like a hierarchy. We believe that such an approach is in line with freedom, equality and fairness, sound principles on which to build any society.
The shaping of society
Societies are not made through planning. They emerge over time from dynamic interaction between different forces within society. There are three players who will play a key role in shaping the new digital society: the state, private corporations and civil society. “Civil society” is the term generally used for groups of private citizens who self-organise in order to influence their world.
Many large corporations are mobilizing to stake a claim and exert control over the new society. Governments too are starting to wake up to the need for regulation of this new terrain. It is time for citizens to stand up and play their part. It would be foolish to place all our faith on even the most enlightened of corporations and governments – we need to mobilise and stand up collectively for ourselves.
From consumer to citizen
Right now most of us have not realised the true significance of data. We are content to give our personal data away, demanding little or nothing in return. We enjoy the benefits that the new technology brings, and give little thought to what lies behind it, or to the societal shifts that are taking place. It is time for us to take a stand for the sort of society we want to create. We can choose not to be enslaved by data, and those that wield it, but rather to demand that it serves us all. It is time to act as engaged citizens, not passive consumers.
The time is now
It is clear that we cannot take back what has already been given. We cannot expect Google, Facebook, Amazon and the like to simply hand over to us the data they have gathered at vast expense. Nor do we need to. What we can demand is that they share with us, in digital form, the data they hold on us so that we can use it (or not) ourselves.
The GDPR, which comes into force in the UK (and other Eu countries) on 25th May 2018, requires any organisation in the UK that holds our personal data – any data they hold that is linked in any way to us as individuals – to “return” this to us in a useable form (so-called "data portability"). This is an important new right. It gives us more control and visibility over who and how our data is being used and paves the way for us to get real value from all our interactions with the internet.
The temptation will be for large data holders to undertake minimal compliance to GDPR. Our mission is to insist that they make this a meaningful right.
Our approach is based on collaboration not confrontation. We want to make it easy for these data holders to comply with the law, by working with them to come up with an easy way of enabling individuals to claim their data, not just in the form of a pdf, say, but in digital, machine readable form. In technical speak, they should provide any citizen who asks for it with an “API” so they can access their personal data and transfer it directly to their own private data accounts.
Private data accounts are a new technology that has emerged in recent years. Examples include the HAT project, MyDex, citizenme.com and digi.me.
By receiving an API from, say, Facebook, an individual can transfer his or her data directly, electronically, to his/her own micro-server, allowing him or her to become their own data controllers. This means we will be able to exchange our data with others (friends and family, say) or allow other companies to access our data with our consent. This has potentially huge advantages and represents a small but significant step towards citizens taking back control of their data.
In the short term, this may meet some resistance. Although technically simple and low cost for many companies to do, providing an API to individuals may make some companies nervous. They know the value of the data and are likely to be reluctant to share it. However we will pursue our project persistently - the law is on our side and we believe eventually all data holders will fall in line.
It will help our cause if individuals or organisations who share our perspective voice their support in some way, to help apply some moral suasion to the holders of data. Please join us - step up and be counted!