Mozilla’s new Data Futures Lab launches with research on data governance alternatives

J. Bob Alotta

By J. Bob Alotta | Sept. 16, 2020 | Internet Health Report

We generate data at a breathtaking pace. Our most mundane actions — playing a song, checking the weather — are analyzed, collated, stored, sold, and used in ways that we can neither see nor imagine, becoming a potential windfall for the data economy.

And though the technology that is used to commodify our data creates a sense of newness, the story of the data economy is an old, familiar one: data is extracted from people and places and used to create capital that rarely stays near its source.  

And, as with regular old capital, those who control and hold the most of it have power.

The harms from this rampant extraction and the power imbalance it creates are often invisible. But they are deeply felt and hugely impactful. We see them in labor disputes, in access to public services, and in the information echo chambers so many of us find ourselves in.

Regulations such as the CCPA in California and the GDPR in the EU have made groundbreaking attempts to check the tremendous power of industries that leverage platform dominance against the public interest. But they have not shifted the fundamental power dynamic between us and those industries. And we are left to play by industry rules.

At Mozilla, we want a new game with new rules. Rules that will harness data in ways that benefit people and communities. And we are far from alone. Around the world, people are thinking about data sovereignty, autonomy, collective action, and purpose. Many are trying to come up with stewardship models that shift power back to communities and the people from whom data is sourced. But not enough of us are working in concert with each other. Nobody has made catalytic investments that would allow us to learn and iterate and scale together. Yet. 

Which is why we are excited to launch the Data Futures Lab at Mozilla.

The Data Futures Lab will connect and fund people around the world who are building product and service prototypes using collective data governance models. The Lab is not meant as a replacement for any of the brilliant work already happening: whether you’re engineering backends for collectives in Europe; researching policy and advocacy standards for Indigenous data sovereignty practices; organizing laborers in data-driven workforces to form a data trust; or figuring out how to leverage the collective power of your community cooperatively, the Lab is meant to be one magnetic entity toward which that work can gravitate and grow. It’s a nexus of people and projects who share a common vision that an alternative data future is possible, regardless of if they agree on how we get there or what it looks like. 

In a world where data is only growing in importance — whether it’s personal data gleaned from apps, or community data acquired by authorities — envisioning a healthier internet means rethinking dominant models of data governance to propose alternatives. Similar to the way Mozilla contends Artificial Intelligence needn’t inherently exploit trust, we can also undermine the presumption of consent that extracts data’s value away from the individual. But only if we work in purpose to make that so. 

Today, I’m pleased to share the Lab’s first publication. It digs deep into questions around data and power to explore how data can be “governed” in ways that rebalance who gains power from data so it benefits people and communities. The publication has three key components: defining existing alternative models, looking at who is building practical solutions, and examining what could go wrong. This publication is the first in a research series that will be expanded periodically with more publications throughout 2020.

Through our research, we found 110 initiatives that we consider alternative data governance approaches and analyzed them according to key traits. Each of these initiatives offers a distinct point of light in the data constellation. Each helps us better understand what data could accomplish, and for whom, if its sole purpose weren’t the concentration of capital. Personally, it gave me great hope to see that even in the most untoward conditions in which we find ourselves, there is light: people are finding ways to build a better future.

PS: We are so excited by the stellar work happening in the field. Our understanding of data paradigms is informed by numerous partners and friends who do fantastic work in the space. They, too, have published critical contributions to our collective understanding and sense of what is possible. Just a few of some of our colleagues’ most recent pieces to hit the stands include work by the Ada Lovelace Institute; Aapti Institute; GovLab; and Mozilla Fellows Sylvie Delacroix, Richard Whitt, and Anouk Ruhaak.