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Home / Opinion / Views /  Let us grant individuals ownership of their data

The question of who owns and controls data gathered by online tools is getting fraught with tension. Some of the world’s most sophisticated technology companies, such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, have built their vast empires on data collected from users that can either directly be put to profitable use or fed to algorithms that churn out valuable information. The massive user bases of these firms in India could explain their reported resistance to the idea of mandatory data-sharing in the country, a proposal made recently by a government-appointed panel. If the committee had its way, the non-personal or anonymized data of people would be treated as a public resource, with private enterprises required by law to turn their databases over if called upon by a regulator to do so. This “sharing" could be for a civic authority to use in enhancing the delivery of public services, or for transfer to a start-up in need of basic market information for its business. The idea here would be to neutralize the advantage that data monopolies wield and foster online competition by opening up vast vaults of information to all. In countries that see private ownership as the crux of capitalism, this would be seen as state appropriation of property. Therefore, it should not surprise us that American lobby groups like the US Chamber of Commerce and US-India Business Council appear to have taken up the issue. Reports suggest that they are preparing to protest data-sharing, social networks

Data is different from other resources in that sharing it does not deprive anyone of anything other than exclusive access to it. In Big Tech’s view, it seems, that is bad enough. The chief argument against the idea is that it would amount to nationalization of what modern businesses thrive on, reducing the incentive of private players to innovate and perform well. The well-intended commandeering of inputs could go wrong, especially if it concentrates power in state hands, as communist countries found. Yet, it is also evident that a laissez faire approach has resulted in the emergence of powerful companies armed with data drawn from people at large. That this data is vulnerable to abuse is one problem. That rivals cannot hope to acquire such bits and bytes, at least in the winner-takes-all field of social networks, is another. For data defined as personal, India has a data protection bill underway that aims to prevent its misuse and regulate data gatherers. If passed, it would create an even more potent centralized data authority. In all, India could soon be saddled with a multiplicity of data rules, possibly even a jumble of red tape.

Before any legal framework is put in place, though, it would be best to forge a consensus on how data should be treated. For this, we must resort to first principles. The core tension between the State and Big Tech over ownership can be resolved by adopting the principle that neither the State nor a corporate gatherer can own anyone’s data. All data must belong to the individual who supplies it. Thus empowered, the person uploading an app or website with data should determine its fate: whether it should be available free to a public agency, for instance, or, if it will be used for purposes beyond the service sought, what compensation to ask for in lieu of its usage or resale rights. Such a regime will also let people share a modest slice of the money being made off big data. Let’s be fair—above all, to our citizens.

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