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Treating data as commons is more beneficial, says UN report

Graphic representing community data

Community data “could be about a community’s social relationships or about artefactual or natural ‘things’ owned by the community, such as public infrastructural and environmental data”, says the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) Digital Economy Report that focusses on value creation and capture in the digital economy by developing countries. On the question of ownership of data, the report acknowledges that it is “difficult” to establish that.

“Ownership might not even be the appropriate term.” — Digital Economy Report, UNCTAD

Advantages of treating data as part of commons

The report analyses two legal approaches to treating data as an economic resource: as a commons, or as private property, but lists the advantages of the former:

  1. When data has public good aspect, community would want to exercise rights over it: “Some data have a strong commons or public goods aspect, such as traffic data from a ride-sharing application that could help city authorities with the management of traffic. Rights over collective data may extend beyond the requirement for specific public interest applications, as the relevant community (which is the source of the collective data) may want to exercise its full rights over what is done with the data, including its economic application by private companies.”
  2. Real value of data is relational/social: “… The greatest value of data lies in their relationship with other data in order to provide insights or intelligence”.
  3. Reusing data doesn’t diminish its value and thus “groups and communities that are subjects of group/community data could retain their rights to maximize the value of the data by sharing these among their members, and, if they find the data safe and rewarding, with trusted outsiders. This could be done in a manner that retains enough incentives for data collectors.”
  4. More bargaining power, lower costs of control with collective data: “… complexities and high transaction costs of control of data by different individuals, as well as asymmetries in bargaining power, might also justify a collective approach.”

Limitation of ownership-based approach? Cross-border data flows

The report acknowledges that “ownership” based approaches to deriving economic value from data collapse when dealing with cross-border data flows as “once the data leave the home jurisdiction, the notion of ownership becomes largely meaningless”. In such a scenario, the report suggests developing unique-to-data frameworks that enable “data subjects – individuals and groups/communities – to control how the data about them are used”. This could be done by licensing “certain trusted parties to derive value from them in a manner that ensures that the interests of the data subjects remain primary, but without ever fully relinquishing their basic rights to the data”.

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