LIRNEasia is a regional ICT policy and regulation think tank active across the Asia Pacific

It is wrong to try to shoehorn big data into a private property-rights framework

Today I spoke at a session on Big Data for Development: Privacy Risks and Opportunities organized by UN Global Pulse and SIDA at Internet Governance Forum 2015. My presentation that sought to set the stage is here.

Many interesting questions were raised, but I will here focus on one particularly uninformed one. The questioners (this is a synthesis of two questions) said that while the data holders may give data for free, they will start to charge for it soon. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the value of the data created by mobile users should be addressed and that users should get paid for their data. Another questioner raised a concern about data being treated as a thing, when it is not. He (Stefaan Verhulst) actually answered the questions. I only had to expand on it.

First, it is wrong to assume that data belongs to anyone. Most data that fall within the scope of big data are generated as byproducts of transactions. Call Detail Records (CDRs) are generated within the billing engines of the mobile operators for the purpose of billing for calls. It is wrong to say the data are created solely by the caller. All the key decisions about what is collected, how long it is stored, etc. are made by the operators. The costs are incurred by them. But clearly,if the caller does not make a call, nothing is generated. The most that can be said is that the data are co-created.

If we look at Visitor Location Registry (VLR) data, the picture is even fuzzier. Here, the caller/subscriber has to do nothing. The network needs to know base station within whose reach the caller is located so that calls can be completed. This is a lot of data. In fact, many operators do not even move out VLR data from the base stations, writing over it every few minutes. But valuable insights can be gathered from VLR data. In the Lockean approach to private property, the critical element is that property rights arise on the basis of labor. What is the action that contributes to the generation of the data by the customer? That she purchased a phone? That she charged the battery?

Then comes the question of changing value. From the very inception of mobile telephony services in 1979-1981, VLR and CDR data were collected. But the value that is extracted from them now is dramatically different now. And unlike with a thing, value extraction can happen over and over again. So how are payments to be made to the so-called owner of the data?

Enough harm has been done, and continues to be done, by trying to manage knowledge and information through a property-rights framework known as intellectual property. God forbid we repeat the mistake with big data.


Research Mailing List

Enter your email for research updates:


Flickr Photos