The push for fairness, equity, and safeguards in the data economy

MIT Technology Review Insights explores, in a new report released today, how a growing number of voices — including economists, lawyers, civil rights groups, and Omidyar Network — are constructing a new social contract between the tech industry and citizens. Sushant Kumar, a principal of responsible technology, reflects on the need and pathway for this paradigm shift in the forward of “Data fairness: A new social contact for the 21st century economy.”

Incentives drive behavior. Currently, tech giants are incentivized to collect as much data as possible so they can narrowly target advertising to consumers, which in turn, increases their earnings. Big tech does everything it can to increase users’ screen-time and engagement, all in service of data collection. And it’s working quite well for them. Facebook’s profits in the first quarter of 2021 nearly doubled and advertising revenue rose by 46% compared to last year.

But while these platforms are seeing record profits, it’s coming at the expense of other stakeholders in the system: government, communities, gig workers, and the users themselves. Government is losing out because these companies don’t pay their fair share of taxes in countries of operation, thereby constraining public investments. These platforms use extractive and intrusive ways to collect data, stripping communities and individuals of privacy and control. And Big Tech uses data to control their employees, especially gig workers, which leads to suppressed wages and deteriorating work conditions for people working in the gig economy.

Omidyar Network, a social change venture, believes we must learn how to balance the data economy so that it is equitable for all stakeholders, not just serving the interests of the big tech giants. That’s why we’ve partnered with MIT Technology Review Insights. We wanted to have a better understanding of potential pathways to reimagine the data economy that is rife with systemic flaws. This paper is intended to share emerging ideas, spark debate, and solicit feedback.

This paper is informed by early scholarship from individuals and institutions that are investigating this issue. They have found three emerging pathways to reimagine the data economy. First, the essential infrastructure that enables a global, open internet must focus on generating public value rather than private profits. Second, governments will need a holistic approach to regulating the data economy. Traditional antitrust and privacy measures need to be complemented by data governance that creates necessary safeguards and room for innovative applications for data. Finally, the data economy needs mechanisms for participatory governance and practice-based intermediation approaches. This report provides examples from Estonia and Taiwan and shares the progress made by entrepreneurs in the field of data trusts and data collaboratives. These approaches can be strengthened with regulatory support and public funding.

We hope these pathways provoke a much needed reckoning of the data economy. As we continue our journey to reimagine the data economy, we invite you to join us.

We are grateful for our partnership with MIT Technology Review Insights for its in-depth exploration into the data economy, and our many partners, including The Rockefeller Foundation, that share our commitment to building a more equitable data economy.

Omidyar Network is a social change venture that reimagines critical systems, and the ideas that govern them, to build more inclusive and equitable societies.