We are doing science for policy
The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission's science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy.
Three years ago a group of scientists embarked on a journey to study the challenges and opportunities that digital transformation is posing for the governance of society.
What started as an exploratory research project looking into the potential challenges 5 to 10 years ahead quickly turned into direct policy support to the Commission, as digital disruption fuelled by new developments gathered pace much faster than expected.
With the rise of artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, the team became aware about the strategic importance of data. The scientists thus focused their attention on the governance of data as a key aspect to understand and shape the governance of society.
The final report of the project examines the role of governments and the EU, as well as possible data governance models to distribute the value generated from data more equitably in society.
The findings of the research contribute to the new EU policy orientations on data sharing and technological and data sovereignty, including the European Strategy for Data and the Data Governance Act.
The report highlights the crucial role of governments in setting the rules of the digital market and ensuring that the value generated from data is distributed more equitably in society.
The on-going digitisation has resulted in the lightning-fast rise of a whole new generation of companies that are tireless in inventing new technologies and applications.
Sometimes these applications have a major impact on various sectors, without giving them an advance warning of what is going to hit them.
Digitisation is now systematically disrupting the socio-economic structures, revenue models and the power balance in societies worldwide.
“The COVID-19 crisis has shown how dependent we are of big tech firms, even if the algorithms they use are a black box and the data they use is our data that we have apparently given to them,” said report co-author Steven Luitjens who works as programme director for the Dutch government.
In the opening chapter of the report, Luitjens describes how we are now confronted with hyper-complexity and hyper-connectivity in a world where a small number of platforms own unbelievable amounts of data on almost everyone, everything, anywhere and anytime.
These platforms are revolutionising the future of our societies in ways that are not always beneficial.
The report underlines the need for governments to act firmly and play a full role in the information society in order to have control over the way that data is generated and collected, as well as the way that the value generated from it is distributed in society.
The term datafication refers to the technological trend to turn aspects of our daily lives into data that can subsequently be transformed into information with a new form of value.
The researchers identified three dominant motivations behind the ongoing datafication.
The first one is to maximise financial profits: datafication offers an easy way for privately-owned platforms to make unprecedented amounts of money.
“These companies go very far to maximise profits for their stakeholders and nobody else. Their products and designs are addictive by design and they do not shy away from actively discrediting and even sabotaging efforts from governments to regulate,” Luitjens says.
It is clear that in this strategy, the benefits of data sharing are very unevenly distributed as profits remain with a handful of companies.
The second motivation is to maximise political control. This strategy – the dominant paradigm in China – aims at creating a perfect surveillance society focused on maximum state control led by the government.
The third motivation – perhaps the most sinister one – is to maximise confusion, create massive insecurity, uncertainty, distrust, chaos and to destabilise society.
The strategies here range from hacking and cyberattacks to deliberate spreading of fake news and attempts to influence election outcomes.
In this scenario, data is used to target individuals with tailored messages to foster conflict and inequalities with the ultimate goal to trigger a social breakdown.
In the present situation, the dominant model for the governance of personal data is the one established by a few ‘big tech’ companies that are collecting, aggregating and financially exploiting massive amounts of personal data.
Without regulatory restrictions, these companies are free to exploit the data unchecked, even when that leads to the sinister scenarios described above.
More recently other actors such as local administrations, small businesses, scientific and civil society organisations, activists, social entrepreneurs, and citizens are also starting to become interested in the control and use of personal data.
The JRC report explores some of the models for the governance of data that are emerging from the practices of these actors.
The report describes four emerging models that allow to exert greater control over access and use of data, and to share more equitably in society the value that is extracted from data.
The four models are data sharing pools, data co-operatives, public data trusts and personal data sovereignty.
“The goal of our analysis was to investigate to what extent these models support different, more balanced, power-relations between actors, and how they redistribute more equitably the value generated from data”, JRC researcher Marina Micheli explains.
The analysis emphasises that civic society and public bodies can play a key role in democratising data governance and redistributing value produced through data.
Of the four models, the researchers found that data co-operatives and civic data trusts are the most promising.
Data co-operatives enable a de-centralised governance approach in which data subjects voluntarily pool their data together to create a common pool for mutual benefits.
In public data trusts, public actors assume the role of trustees that guarantee that citizens’ data is handled ethically, privately and securely.
The report highlights the need for the EU and the EU Member States to intensify and accelerate the development of a European way for governing digitisation.
The researchers suggest that a proactive European way to move forward on its own terms can best be built on the principles of public value, openness, transparency, public-private partnerships and inclusiveness.
“The European way should certainly not be reactive, defensive or protectionist. The European response should be forward-looking with the overall objective of creating and maintaining a proper balance between opportunities and threats”, Luitjens says.
The researchers believe that the EU should embrace the benefits of new technologies while at the same time remain vigilant for possible downsides and act firmly against them if necessary.
The recent efforts from the Von Der Leyen Commission, including the Data Strategy and the Data Governance Act, as well as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) have provided excellent impetus for resetting the way that the big tech companies handle data on their own conditions.
“The take-away message from this research is that the governance of our digitally-transforming society is challenging and complex, full of opportunities and pitfalls, but that ultimately it is up to the EU to shape the way that data governance should be approached in Europe, and we certainly cannot leave it to others to decide”, the project leaders Massimo Craglia and Henk Scholten conclude.
In November 2020, the Commission proposed new rules on data governance.
The Regulation facilitates data sharing across the EU, increases control and trust of both citizens and companies regarding their data, and offers an alternative European model to data handling practice of major tech platforms.
Delivering on the announcement in the EU data strategy, the Regulation creates the basis for a new European way of data governance that is in line with EU values and principles, such as personal data protection (GDPR), consumer protection and competition rules.
It offers an alternative model to the data-handling practices of the big tech platforms. This new approach proposes a model based on the neutrality and transparency of data intermediaries, which are organisers of data sharing or pooling, to increase trust.
To ensure this neutrality, the data-sharing intermediary cannot deal in the data on its own account (e.g. by selling it to another company or using it to develop their own product based on this data) and will have to comply with strict requirements.
Several key Commission initiatives are addressing the topics raised by the JRC report: the Digital Services Act (on responsibilities and accountability of platforms and protecting consumers online) and the Digital Markets Act (on ensuring fair and open digital markets) were both adopted by the Commission in December 2020.
The Data Act (on B2B and B2G data sharing) is announced for 2021.
Yesterday, the Commission presented a Communication on Europe’s digital transformation targets for 2030, which also proposes to develop a robust governance framework to monitor progress together with Member States.
Clear targets evolve around four key areas: digital skills; digital infrastructures; digital transformation of businesses; and digitalisation of public services.