Balancing an unfair data economy will be critical to ensure the 21st century economic model can hold, says MIT Technology Review Insights

Balancing an unfair data economy will be critical to ensure the 21st century economic model can hold, says MIT Technology Review Insights

A new report by MIT Technology Review Insights explores how a growing number of voices—including economists, lawyers, and civil rights groups—are pushing for a new social contract between the tech industry and citizens.

  • The report, "Data fairness: A new social contact for the 21st century economy," is produced in association with Omidyar Network and draws on in-depth interviews with subject matter experts from universities and organizations including Microsoft Research, World Bank, University College London, University of Cambridge, and Yale University. The findings are as follows:
  • The data economy has become increasingly unequal, dominated by a small number of tech companies. It fails to deliver the full possibility of societal gains. A diverse community of critics believe the data economy is increasingly unfair. Citizens, non-commercial actors, and governments are key contributors to the data ecosystem, yet they are not full partners in developing the data economy nor in sharing its profits.
  • Data is a novel resource requiring new tools to calculate its value, identify its participants and beneficiaries, and allocate its fruits. Data has its own dynamics that call for a distinctive approach to tabulating its value. Its power is relational and cumulative, realized in the aggregate, which makes the "data privacy" agenda an important but limited perspective. Data is the product of many participants and users who are at times unwitting in their "data labor," and at other times not compensated fairly for it. We need more sophisticated tools for understanding the unique properties and dynamics of data.
  • Innovations to redress the imbalance of the data economy range from top-down government interventions to bottom-up institutions, and networks led by civil society and social impact-oriented startups. There are no silver bullets. Regulatory change must be skilfully designed to avoid unforeseen consequences. Data stewardship institutions and organizations need to reach financial sustainability without compromising their mission and independence. There is a need for more evidence on the relative effectiveness of different models for solving specific problems. Overall, a broad community of perspectives should be included in any efforts to rebalance the digital economy.

"There are no quick fixes when it comes to building a fairer data economy. But establishing new systems and structures will be critical for the fourth industrial revolution and the massive changes that will bring," says Francesca Fanshawe, editor of the report. "Drawing on real-life experiments can help society develop new models that ensure all parties benefit from the gathering, usage, and distribution of data."

"We know today's data economy is unfair. Omidyar Network has begun to reimagine the data economy, reorient it toward better societal outcomes, and establish real equity for all stakeholders. With appropriate safeguards, data can help solve some of humanity's biggest challenges, and we encourage others to join us in this bold pursuit," said Sushant Kumar, a principal of responsible technology at Omidyar Network.

SOURCE MIT Technology Review Insights
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