Frank Pasquale –
The political economy of digitization is a fraught topic. Scholars and policymakers have disputed the relative merits of centralization and decentralization. Do we want to encourage massive firms to become even bigger, so they can accelerate AI via increasingly comprehensive data collection, analysis, and use? Or do we want to trust-bust the digital economy, encouraging competitors to develop algorithms that can “learn” more from less data? I recently wrote on this tension, exploring the pro’s and con’s of each approach.
However, there are some ways out of the dilemma. Imagine if we could require large firms to license data to potential competitors in both the public and private sectors. That may sound like a privacy nightmare. But anonymization could allay some of these concerns, as it has in the health care context. Moreover, the first areas opened up to such mandated sharing may not even be personal data. Sharing the world’s best mapping data beyond the Googleplex could unleash innovation in logistics, real estate, and transport. Some activists have pushed to characterize Google’s trove of digitized books as an essential facility, which it would be required to license at fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) rates to other firms aspiring to categorize, sell, and learn from books. Fair use doctrine could provide another approach here, as Amanda Levendowski argues.
In a recent issue of Logic, Ben Tarnoff has gone beyond the essential facilities argument to make a case for nationalization. Tarnoff believes that nationalized data banks would allow companies (and nonprofits) to “continue to extract and refine data—under democratically determined rules—but with the crucial distinction that they are doing so on our behalf, and for our benefit.” He analogizes such data to natural resources, like minerals and oil. Just as the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund and Alaska Permanent Fund socialize the benefits of oil and gas, public ownership and provision of data could promote more equitable sharing of the plenitude that digitization ought to enable.
Many scholars have interrogated the data/oil comparison. They usually focus on the externalities of oil use, such as air and water pollution and climate change. There are also downsides to data’s concentration and subsequent dissemination. Democratic control will not guarantee privacy protections. Even when directly personally identifiable information is removed from databases, anonymization can sometimes be reversed. Both governments and corporations will be tempted to engage in “modulation”—what Cohen describes as a pervasive form of influence on the beliefs and behaviors of citizens. Such modulation is designed to “produce a particular kind of subject[:] tractable, predictable citizen-consumers whose preferred modes of self-determination play out along predictable and profit-generating trajectories.” Tarnoff acknowledges this dark possibility, and I’d like to dig a bit deeper to explore how it could be mitigated.