Data Ownership is Debatable

by | Oct 23, 2019 | ICT4D, Learning |

Ownership can be interesting when we move into the digital space. Most of our thinking about data ownership stems from property. Sometimes this is helpful, but not always.

My wife and I own our house and the land it sits on. Our previous house was a flat which we ‘owned’ as well. However in that one, it was called a leasehold as both the land and the flat we were ‘renting’ long term. And yet, we could, and did, sell the flat to someone else. However this renting was different than the renting we did before that where we paid a landlord a monthly fee and could only stay for a year. If we tried to sell this flat, we would have been in trouble.

But it doesn’t stop there. Our flat was in a building with common areas like the hallways, roof, lift, parking area, small kids’ play area, etc. Because we ‘owned’ the flat, we had the right to use those areas. If you didn’t live in the building, you didn’t have the right to use those common areas.

And then there was the road next to the building and on the other side of the road was a big park. Neither of these were included in the paperwork of our flat ownership. But our taxes contributed to their upkeep and we had the right to use them. And because my wife and children are British citizens, they kind of were part ‘owners’.

And then there is the air we breathe, the water we drink and use. In a new property we are buying, our solicitor has informed us of our responsibilities and duties related to the stream on the edge of the property. We don’t really own it or even have the right to use water from it, but we have responsibilities to maintain aspects of it. He also has been clarifying ‘air rights’ above the property.

So ownership isn’t as straight forward as I thought. So when we talk of data ownership, we might need to clarify what we mean. Some people talk about data as the new ‘oil’, while others talk about data as the new ‘carbon’.

Even oil itself is interesting as effective it is an asset that has been created over thousands or millions of years and happens to be located or accessed on the land you own. So is it an individual asset or a communal one? Right now it is treated as an individual asset, while carbon is not. Weirdly, roads tend to be treated as common assets, while railways often are not.

So back to data. When is data ‘mine’? When it is about me? That is clear when it is things like my date of birth, my name. But it gets a bit more tricky even when we move to my address or even my passport number. Those are pieces of data about me (identifiers), but are they ‘mine’? And what about my weekly food shop – is that data mine? And if the supermarket de-links what I bought from my name, does it stop being my data?

Like most things, ownership is likely some sort of spectrum sprawling from from individual to communal. Capitalists and socialists will view it differently and context will also matter. It is a debate worth having because it changes our approach. And yes, our views will likely change over time and that’s ok.

Photo by Bernadette Gatsby

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