Is Facebook a public good?

Data economy

Ingrid Schneider

To person

is Professor of Political Science at the University of Hamburg, where she works in the Department of Computer Science in the department "Ethics in Information Technology".
[email protected]

Measured by their market value, the five "Internet giants" Microsoft, Apple, Alphabet (Google), Amazon and Facebook are now the undisputed leaders of the world's most valuable companies. Google and Facebook as well as many other digital platforms offer their services free of charge; They generate their income mainly from the sale of advertisements that are presented to target groups by analyzing usage data and creating digital profiles. [1] Questions of the collection, aggregation, access and exclusion of data are now strongly linked to questions of power that extend beyond the mere market market. The new power asymmetries of the data economy are therefore also causing concern in politics. For example, Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the World Economic Summit in Davos in January 2018: "Data is the raw material of the 21st century. The answer to the question 'Who does this data belong to?' Will ultimately decide whether democracy, participation, sovereignty in the digital world and economic success go together. (...) We need a Social Market Economy 4.0, not just Industry 4.0. "[2]

In Europe at least, data as such is not propertyable, but it can be protected as trade secrets or by copyright. The legal figure of data ownership contradicts traditional German civil law, which (property law) only grants physical property to tangible, material goods. [3] Data, on the other hand, are intangible goods; they resemble a public good, at least with regard to the aspect of non-rival use: As a rule, they can be used almost infinitely by many actors at the same time without being used up; they are neither subject to shortages nor to wear and tear. For this reason, data cannot be "overused" as is the case with traditional commons (such as a communal pasture). When discussing data ownership or data ownership it is therefore primarily a matter of access and rights of disposal over data. [4]

In the following, I will examine four forms of regulation that want to see data as a private good, a public good, a common good and managed and managed by means of a trusteeship. In doing so, I will investigate the question of how the informational self-determination of the data providers is preserved and whether a bridge between regulated commercial use and making it usable for the common good can be made possible.

Data as a private good

Idea and approach
The computer scientist and Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier proposes a "humanistic information economy" based on not considering the human origin of personal data as less valuable than their algorithmic analysis and further processing. [5] Since every type of automated data analysis relies on data previously generated by humans, this is precisely the real source of value in the digital world. For example, online translation services were based on previously human-done translations for machine learning. However, this work does not appear in any company balance sheet and would also be excluded from the overall economic calculation. This "disenfranchisement" and devaluation can only be stopped if people are no longer perceived as just consumers, but instead become actors in the data economy, ie "prosumers" (hybrid form between producers and consumers), according to Lanier. The human factor as the originator of data must be explicitly included in the economic value chain and rewarded. It shouldn't be that a huge number of people produce an enormous amount of valuable information via social networks and search engines, but the lion's share of the value goes to the companies that collect, aggregate and process the data.

Lanier therefore advocates a micro-payment system: every actively or passively generated contribution in a digital database or network should be rewarded in the form of a small amount. By storing the origin of the data, linking the data with its originator, every access and every use of the data should be registered and a corresponding amount should be automatically transferred by the data user to a digital account of the data provider. The decision as to which data to offer on the market at what price should be made by everyone for themselves. The market regulates supply and demand. The state could take over the monitoring of compliance with the rules and the sanctioning of any violations. At the same time, Lanier calls for a move away from the free mentality. The time when it was demanded that all information should be freely available on the Internet is history.

The establishment of a market for data or such a "pay-per-view economy" means that Lanier ultimately conceives data as a private good. The declared aim is to establish the sovereignty of every person over their personal data. He expects more self-determination and empowerment of the data providers as well as a reduction of power asymmetries.

Appreciation and criticism
Lanier still sees the market as the central coordinating body, but calls for the data creators to be involved within this system. However, he would not only like your contribution to be valued ideally, but also materially included in the value chain. He thus conceives a kind of supply and demand model for personal data and suggests that individual users could gain market power through this.

Overall, however, Lanier remains vague. Should there be individual decisions regarding the release of data, this does not seem to have been thought through to the end. A constant case-by-case decision about the data release would quickly lead to excessive demands: When a single website is called up today, 50 to 100 connections to Internet domains of third parties are established through cookies, among other things. [6] Lanier's prosumer would have to enter into price negotiations with each of these data processors. And even if you were to automate the negotiation by a data clearinghouse by specifying your preferences, with whom you would be willing to share data for money at what price, this would result in high transaction costs. In addition, it is doubtful whether the users actually bargaining power would be maintained, because the asymmetry of market power remains - the bargaining power of the platform would still be much greater. [7]

Lanier also takes too little account of the fact that the added value of the data lies in the aggregation and evaluation of the data, but not in an individual, single date. His model is also dubious from a sociopolitical point of view: micro-payments could induce financially weak users in particular to consent to unethical data use by third parties or to allow large parts of their daily life to be tracked. However, data protection should not depend on financial possibilities. In addition, many data providers may overestimate the value of their data - and tend to underestimate the consequences that data sharing has for them. According to calculations, only fractions of cents would be charged for disclosing individual data. Even if you apportioned the company's (advertising) sales to all users, Facebook would only get eight euros a year, with Google around 150 euros - minus the maintenance costs for the platform. [8]

There are other open questions about operability. Lanier denies that the settlement infrastructure for the micro payments would create a gigantic surveillance network on an Orwellian scale. Finally, the question arises as to how he would like to see the supervisory, control and sanctioning powers that he attributes to the state implemented. Because his model is purely civil law between data seller and data buyer. Obviously Lanier only has democratic states in mind, not authoritarian or corrupt ones that could siphon off rents from the data market or use it for hyper-surveillance and repression. Even if it should be positively emphasized that Lanier explicitly recognizes the contribution of the data creators, his data market model proves to be overall inadequate, as it would pose a whole series of unintended consequential problems.