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7 September 2018updated 12 Oct 2023 10:58am

We need a Digital Commonwealth to counter surveillance capitalism

Rather than being privately extracted, data and technology must be harnessed for collective gain. 

By Mathew Lawrence

The digital giants occupy the commanding heights of the contemporary economy. Their wealth is vast, their ambition universal. Any ambitious programme of economic transformation must therefore be capable of challenging and reshaping their immense power. This in turn demands a politics that doesn’t presume technologies are emancipatory by default, but rather actively designs institutions and builds forms of democratic agency that ensure technological change serves the common good.

Today’s new IPPR report, The Digital Commonwealth: from private enclosure to public benefit, sets out a strategy to do just that. Our goal is simple but transformative: to move from conditions of monopolistic “enclosure”, where power is concentrated in the hands of a few, to a thriving, creative and pluralistic “digital commonwealth”, where data and the digital infrastructure is organised as a collective resource to drive inclusive innovation and shared plenty.

The need for systemic reform is clear and urgent. The pace and scale in which a handful of leading digital companies are accumulating wealth and power is unprecedented. Amazon this week joined Apple as the second trillion dollar valued company in history. Its founder, Jeff Bezos, has seen his net worth rise by $405m a day in 2018, even as workers in Amazon warehouses are monitored on their toilet breaks. The “big five” – Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft – have a market capitalisation greater than the 100 biggest British companies combined, and a total revenue larger than the GDP of 90 per cent of countries.

In the face of such rapid concentration, our political institutions appear weak and overwhelmed. For example, the Information Commissioner recently fined Facebook half a million pounds for its role in the Cambridge Analytica crisis. Since the company took £500,000 in revenue every five and a half minutes in the first quarter of 2018, this seems unlikely to drive systemic changes in their behaviour.

Critically, the Cambridge Analytica episode wasn’t an aberration but something rooted deep in the business model of many platform companies. This is because while the dominant digital companies are diverse in function, the source of their wealth and power is the same: the extraction and analysis of data for profit, aided by their control of the digital infrastructure upon which we all depend. Profiting from the extraction and analysis of data in turn generates a circular, expansive dynamic: the more data that is captured, the greater the potential for revenue.

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The impulse to capture, analyse and monetise data consequently sits at the heart of the platform business model, driving their universal ambition: to expand into more and more markets, and extract more and more data from users in their ecosystem of services.

“Surveillance capitalism” – where profits are increasingly made from extracting and analysing our digital footprints at ever greater scale and granularity – in turn makes real Lenin’s prediction that in the future “all of society will become a factory”. Profits and power now increasingly flows from the surveillance of social and economic life, the data it yields, the behavioural changes it enables through analysis of data, and the artificial intelligence systems it helps build. We all live in the digital factory now, our lives mediated through their networks and managed by their algorithms.

Of course, the digital giants provide services of benefit to many, from ease of communication and connectivity to mapping and matching. But this business model also sits at the heart of growing social, economic and political problems, from the erosion of democratic norms and mass psychological manipulation, to growing monopoly power and the concentration of wealth within a few labour-light technological giants. Deep reform – that can ensure digital technologies can support a future of open innovation and shared plenty – is therefore urgently needed.

This requires rejecting a naïve conception of technological change; there are a radical set of possibilities and emancipatory futures contained in digital and automating technologies, but too often their development and use simply reflect and reinforce existing patterns of inequality and exploitation. The challenge is therefore more one of politics, not necessarily technical feasibility; we need a politics capable of shaping the use of technologies and embedding values of openness and equity in the outcomes they generate.

A vital start would be recognising that data and the value generated from it is a collective achievement made possible by complex and connected layers of public and private infrastructure and investment. Moreover, the power of data is in aggregation, in the relationship of data to other data, at scale, rather than in isolation. It is a socially produced asset, whose value is primarily in its collective scale; individualising reward misunderstands the issue and badly prescribes the solution. The same is true for the digital infrastructures. These complexities require policymakers and the public to think more critically about how digital spaces and data are created and to act to shape them in ways that deepen their potential to generate shared value.

With this in mind, the goal of public policy should be to create a digital common, where data and the digital infrastructure are organised as a common resource to drive inclusive innovation and democratic experimentation. Three steps can get us there.

First, where platform giants provide vital infrastructural services such as searching, matching, or communicating, under monopolistic conditions, we should regulate those activities and companies as public utilities. Critically, an Office for Digital Platforms must have the power to compel platforms to accessibly open up their data in cases and markets that are deemed to be in the public interest. This would transform data from a hoarded commodity to a shared source of value, underpinning an explosion in collective social intelligence.

Second, we should establish new Digital UK public service corporation to drive the curation and productive use of public data, including the creation of “databanks” capable of capturing greater reward for the public realm. Digital infrastructure – from cloud computing to analytical capabilities – should also be developed as a public good, stewarded by Digital UK.

Finally, we must learn from cities and towns at the cutting edge of digital governance, such as Barcelona, which are breaking with the fetishisation of the neoliberal “smart city” (smart for whom?). Politics should be messy, vibrant and contested, not smoothly algorithmic. But this requires developing strategies to reimagine how data is generated and used, including providing local digital infrastructures and access to data to enable communities, businesses, and civil society to create the tools and services that best serve their needs.

This is an ambitious agenda. Taken together, these measures would radically change the governance and ownership of data and the digital infrastructure, transforming them from sources of private wealth to a collective resource able to deliver prosperity and justice. The alternative to action – a future dominated by the digital oligarchs – makes radicalism the safest option.

Mathew Lawrence tweets @dantonshead

He is the co-author of IPPR’s The Digital Commonwealth: from private enclosure to collective benefit.

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