Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Who should own big data?

Big data has a lot to offer, from curing disease to fostering economic development to fostering transparency.  At the same time, from government mass surveillance to data leaks, the misuses of big data seem as pervasive as its uses.

Who owns big data?  What rights do--and should--its owners have over what is done with it? Two different answers to this question have been posed.  The first would allow free use of big data for non-profit scientific research.  The second would release IP control of big data for commercial research also.

As noted in a recent paper by Handke, Guibault and Vallbé, the answer to the question of what IP rights subsist in big data varies by country.  Research using mined data may, in some countries, be constrained by copyright and other IP laws, while in others (including Canada and the United States), copyright ownership in data may not stand in the way of researchers seeking to data mine.

Two international initiatives: The Hague Declaration on Knowledge Discovery in the Digital Age and the World Intellectual Property Organization's proceedings toward the creation of a new international instrument on limitations and exceptions for educational, teaching and research institutions and for persons with other disabilities, seek to ensure internationally that copyright does not stand in the way of the ability to mine data for research.

At WIPO, the African Group of countries has proposed that non-profit scientific research be exempted from copyright.  They propose that:
The reproduction and reuse [...] of any lawfully obtained copyrighted work for purposes of not-for-profit scientific research, including storage, archiving, linking, data mining procedures, data manipulation, and virtual scientific experiments subject to attribution of the sources used to the extent reasonably feasible
should not constitute copyright infringement (p. 33; emphasis added).

While the WIPO proposal focuses on non-profit scientific research, a second initiative--the Hague Declaration--would also permit commercial data mining.  Further, it encourages research organizations, universities, and businesses; and those using Creative Commons licenses, to actively make data available publicly available for research.

Corporate owners of big data might be alarmed at the latter declaration.  Should individuals be alarmed as well?

Should we be concerned about giving up IP ownership of personal data?  

Scholar Neil Lawrence has argued that people should have ownership of their data:
There are opportunities and risks with the accumulation of data, just as there are for the accumulation of capital. However, one thing seems clear: we need to increase the power of the people. Banks pay interest; perhaps we should be paid directly for the use of our personal data. We need to be made aware of the value of our data and be given rights to control who accesses it. We need to form a data-democracy: data governance for the people, by the people and with the people’s consent.
Whether this ownership does or should take the form of intellectual property, or some other form, is a question worth considering.[1]  Is a person not the author of their own personal data?

While the two international initiatives outlined  above are likely intended to address corporate ownership of big data, personal ownership of the personal data that makes up big data should also be considered.  

It seems clear that, in an age where privacy laws fall short in constraining mass surveillance and protecting privacy online, a stronger medicine may be required.  As the ethics surrounding big data continues to evolve, throwing away ownership of our data in both commercial and non-commercial contexts may be a precipitous move.  Some form of personal ownership of personal data--especially ownership that would prevent unauthorized commercial use of data--could be a useful tool in an increasingly pitted battle over data ownership and control.

[1]. Scholars have considered this question from various angles. Pamela Samuelson has argued that, while an intellectual property approach to personal data may not be appropriate, an approach based on moral rights may be worth exploring. The idea of ownership of personal data, and the problems associated with such ownership, continue to be explored.

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