Locked-in Data Production: User Dignity and Capture in the Platform Economy

30 Pages Posted: 24 Oct 2019 Last revised: 29 Mar 2021

See all articles by Elettra Bietti

Elettra Bietti

Northeastern University - School of Law

Date Written: October 14, 2019


As public attention around data governance grows, a number of proposals are emerging each purporting to lead to a more just data ecosystem. Most prominent amongst these seem to be solutions that seek to compensate individuals for their data through monetary rewards. These range in scope and aim from the creation of private ownership rights over personal data, to the creation of a new market for trading personal data with platforms, to the creation of a technical layer which would enable consumers to better control information about themselves. This paper argues that a normative misdirection underlies these proposals. Taking a market-based mechanism that compensates individuals for their data contributions as being the primary means of correcting the data economy’s harms - surveillance, commodification, exclusion - is not just impossible but perpetuates harm. The distribution of economic benefits is inextricably linked to how other rights and harms are being shared and to the way the relationship of dependency between users and platforms is structured. The former cannot be justified without a prior deep understanding and scrutiny of the latter.

The paper articulates four modular normative positions, each of which is a way of devising and justifying the distribution of economic benefits in the data economy: (a) claims to data ownership as the product of our labor (Private Ownership), (b) claims to be compensated in the form of wages, discounts, or other non-monetary tokens or privileges on the basis of participatory contributions (Compensation), (c) claims to an ability to auction out personal data to platforms and other actors (Auctions), (d) claims to share in the profits made on the basis of our data contributions (Share of Profits). Each of these visions is discussed at a level of detail that allows their respective implications to come to the surface. While none of them can be a panacea solution to governing the data economy, each may play a role if considered in context and if limited in scope by the prior question of protecting human dignity. Overall, individuals should have a say over how data is collected, used and stored, and not only a right to be compensated for uses of their data determined by others.

Keywords: law, data, economy, ownership, labor, political economy, technology, economics, regulation, governance, philosophy, ethics, politics

JEL Classification: K11, K12, K31

Suggested Citation

Bietti, Elettra, Locked-in Data Production: User Dignity and Capture in the Platform Economy (October 14, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3469819 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3469819

Elettra Bietti (Contact Author)

Northeastern University - School of Law ( email )

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States

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