Data for empowerment
Ideas about new forms of data governance are on the rise, suggesting alternatives to big tech monopolies. Could this help us reimagine, reconstitute, and rebalance skewed power dynamics? The research presented here is an open study by Mozilla Insights that examines approaches to data stewardship and alternative data governance (in theory and in practice).
How data is controlled and governed is central to Mozilla’s understanding of internet health and trustworthy AI. We are committed to working with others to reimagine data governance as a building block toward a trustworthy AI ecosystem. Specifically, this research will help inform how to support new technologies and infrastructure, as well as support further cross-disciplinary thinking as part of Mozilla’s new Data Futures Lab.
The Data Futures Lab will resource projects and foster networks across the ecosystem of actors seeking to realize data governance alternatives which redirect agency, ownership, value, and power back to people from whom these elements are commonly extracted. We believe that informed and collaborative experimentation in the data governance field, with motivations beyond power and profit, should be a priority and at the center of our work in this space. The more people deploy trustworthy models to govern and handle data, the bigger an impact it will have in the future.
As part of this broader effort, this research series will be expanded periodically with more publications. We are committed to working in the open, collaborating with others, and sharing our findings widely to advance and complement a growing community of thought.
From theory to practice
Something is happening in the world of data. Yes, more data is being collected, analyzed, used, and reused at practically every juncture between life and the internet. At the same time, concerns over personal privacy and the surveillance economy are increasing too.
As new realms of possibility open up for use of data, including for artificial intelligence (AI), are we approaching a time where fundamental critiques of data extraction also begin to sprout new innovations for how we collect, share, and generate purposeful value from data?
The short answer is yes. But if the dominant paradigm is one where companies like Facebook offer free services to gather data about every facet of human activity to sell ads against, what are the actual emerging alternatives? Who could even compete with such a market share advantage to empower the individuals, communities, and societies from which so much data stems?
Over a decade of scholarly writing and research into data governance law and theory show that different pathways for ‘stewarding’ data within trusts, commons, collectives, collaboratives, fiduciaries, and more, are indeed opening up. These various approaches each have their imperfections, but at least in theory there is hope for alternatives to help redefine how we conceive of data to address imbalances of power between data holders and data subjects.
The fluid and overlapping definitions of data stewardship evident in literature and theory inevitably carry over into how we consider examples of them in real life. In practice, innovators of all kinds and in different contexts are still at the beginning of figuring out what works, for whom, and with what data governance approach.
Do the many initiatives we see today for rethinking data in agriculture or health or mobility constitute a credible challenge to the entire surveillance economy? No. Does technology to manage personal data or to distribute benefits from datasets more evenly offer a glimpse of the future? Perhaps.
What we do see is a clear rise in the creativity and ingenuity of display to solve real world challenges helped by data in different ways. In the past year alone, countless responses to the COVID-19 global pandemic show just how far we have come in considering data as a key to solving big problems, for better or worse.
By collaboratively studying and eventually supporting attempts to reimagine, reconstitute, and rebalance data governance, we believe we may help influence a paradigm shift in a positive direction. The values that guide us are embedded in our frameworks for internet health, Trustworthy AI, and the Mozilla Manifesto. We are critical of tech monopolies, critical of tech solutionism, and deeply concerned with privacy, transparency, and accountability. And we are just as concerned when it comes to surveillance and (ab)use of data by the public sector.
The learnings we wish to summarize for you are sandwiched between theory and practice. Our goal is to better understand what it takes to build bridges from conceptual frameworks into actual innovations that offer better prospects for humanity in all its diversity of race, gender, geography, ability, and more. We believe in unlocking opportunities for people to gain greater insight and meaningful agency over the different kinds of data that is generated about them.
Looking into data futures
This is an exciting moment to be thinking about and working on emerging questions around alternative data governance and data stewardship.
When we embarked on a literature review to better understand common alternative data governance approaches, we hoped to identify definitions and categories that would help us in a review of global initiatives. But the newness of this field is evidenced in the fluid and overlapping definitions of approaches that simply aren’t easily mapped to real life.
We found that there is a gap between theoretical discussions and practice, and that there is still much to explore in thinking about how to bridge this gap and work with others toward exploring alternative data futures.
To name a few areas of interest to Mozilla, it could be in the realm of community-driven approaches to multilingual voice technology; collective governance models for mobility data to support labor rights; and new techniques to expand consumer rights to data privacy.
The questions we are asking about who needs data stewardship (and where), how to break silos of anglocentric discourse, and how to mitigate significant risks –– these are questions we ask from a perspective of urgency.
We don’t know whether alternative data governance is the answer, but we know that data collection and ambitions for use of data are growing at a faster pace than systems of accountability and trust that could help protect lives and communities.
Shifting power through data governance is something that deserves a try.
Key learnings so far
- We see genuine potential in different contexts for data stewardship to help open new paths away from the dominant approaches employed by big tech.
- This is an emerging field. There are relatively few examples of scalable initiatives for more than a handful of data governance approaches that are frequently repeated.
- We see clear geographic and linguistic imbalances in the majority of the discourse surrounding data stewardship, alternative data governance approaches, and related legislation.
- There is a budding ecosystem of thought leadership and support for inspiring, incubating, and testing new data governance approaches in practice, including for indigenous-owned and local innovation initiatives.
- The Data Futures Lab could support the development of best practices for safe experimentation with data to minimize risk for harm. And it could fund those who build “shared infrastructure” to support an open innovation environment.
As Mozilla, we have a particular interest in understanding how software and consumer technology can be developed to the benefit of equality and human rights. In better understanding alternative data governance and data stewardship, we wish to think strategically about our own role in the technology ecosystem to support bright ideas and real alternatives to the status quo.
Beyond a handful of countries in Europe, Canada, and the United States we did not find evidence that theories around data stewardship hold high currency in other regions, or in other major languages than English. There are exceptions, but as we consider how new data governance approaches may offer true relief from the myriad of harms people do (and will) experience from highly centralized and discriminatory data power worldwide, we can only emphasize that far more diverse input, co-creation, and research is necessary for the evolution of this field.
For our part, we will continue an open minded but critical interrogation of data stewardship (in theory and in practice). Our latest addition to this research series, is an examination of the sprouting ‘ecosystem’ of organizations, companies, and software developers that support innovation in this field, and an assessment of how the Data Futures Lab could help.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
- Does ‘data governance’ have to do with governments?
No, it’s a term that refers to what rules are applied to data by whomever has data to manage and control.
- How can power be shifted through data stewardship?
For instance, if a trusted entity uses legal safeguards to uphold the rights and interests of individuals or groups.
- What kind of data do you mean?
It depends on context. We’re interested in personal data, but also agricultural, mobility, and all other kinds. Whatever can unlock more equity.
- How important are community centric approaches for managing data?
Very. Data can be leveraged in different contexts for community empowerment and collective needs.
- Is this all about selling personal data?
Not to us. We want to empower users with alternatives to the commoditization of data by big tech, data brokers, and others.
- How does a person get more control?
For instance, by deciding who can use or share data or by having the technical means to give or revoke access to different entities.
- What difference can a clear purpose make?
It can facilitate informed consent around data use or sharing. Plus digital infrastructure can be designed with intention.
- Do you have a glossary of key terms used by the lab?
Oh, yes we do! Thank you for asking, you can see it here.
This research is supported by the time and input of dozens of people and partner organizations as well as Mozilla staff and fellows. We have listed all contributors and reviewers on each article and study. If your name is missing, please let us know.
Mozilla Insights project team
J. Bob Alotta - VP, Global Programs
Kasia Odrozek - Project lead and strategy
Solana Larsen - Editing and strategy
Stefan Baack - Research
Eeva Moore - Outreach
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