WHAT WE WANT
We want to have a say in how our data is used, and thus to assert our rights as digital citizens.
To enable this, we want the holders of our data to share it in digital form so that we can use it.
Data is taking an increasingly important place in our everyday lives. It is becoming the energy that powers the information age, and it is a renewable energy. But if data is to serve humanity, rather than the other way round, it will need individuals to step up and act like citizens of this new digital society. And that means asserting our rights to access and to use our own data.
Newly emerging technology allows individuals to do just that – to take private control of our own data. What we need now is companies to share the data they hold on us. We are initiating a campaign to persuade large corporations 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 use their data. It is still not quite clear how the new rights under the GDPR will be interpreted – we intend to push for law and practice to come together to give new powers to private citizens.
Join our campaign and help shape the new digital society!
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Data: the new oil
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. Data is the oil on which the information age is being built. And it is potentially more valuable than oil, and more empowering - because, unlike oil, it is a renewable resource. The same data can be used by different people for different purposes, without loss of value.
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 - we saw, for example, in the financial crisis in 2007, how trading decisions made by machines can cause stock exchanges to crash. The idea of technology running away with itself is a sobering thought when our major societal systems are expected to be increasingly based on it.
“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 earlier this year, 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 it seems 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 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 role of citizen is not, at first glance, a particularly appealing one. The term “citizen” carries a sense of something rather dull, worthy and dutiful. The good news is that there is something truly rewarding and joyful in acting in line with our own consciences, in resisting external pressure to conform while acting in the interests of the community as a whole. This is, as George Bernard Shaw put it, “the true joy of life”.
Our starting point
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. 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 on 25th May 2018, requires any organisation in the UK that hold 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 getting real value from all our interactions with the internet.
The temptation will be for large corporations that hold lots of data to undertake minimal compliance to GDPR. Our mission is to insist that they make this a meaningful right.
What we are demanding is that these corporations give us the ability, not just to provide a copy of our personal data in writing (say by email) but to control and use it electronically. In technical speak, they should provide any citizen who asks for it with an “API” so we can access our personal data using our own private data accounts.
Private data accounts are a new technology that has emerged in recent years. Examples include the HAT project, MyDex and digi.me.
By receiving an API from, say, Facebook, we can transfer the data they hold on us electronically to our own micro-server, allowing us to become our own data controllers. This means we can exchange 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 getting back control of their data.
Our intention is to gather a group of individuals together and to write on their behalf in early January 2018 to a number of companies that hold their personal data (shopping habits, etc). We will notify them formally that, on 18th May, we will writing again on behalf of these individuals to ask that they provide APIs to access these individuals data and transfer them to a private data account in their name.
In the short term, this may meet some resistance. Although technically simple and low cost for 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 believe we have the law on our side and will pursue our claim as far as we need to.
In the medium term, we believe these large data gatherers will realise that it is in their interests to have empowered citizens sharing responsibility for how data is used. And once the first few agree to share their data in this way, the rest will follow in time.