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Control of data debate could finally come out in the wash

A new battle is starting over the control of data. This time the EU has a silver bullet writes Shiv Malik, Head of Growth for Streamr.


Who owns and controls the data from your washing machine? You, the machine’s owner, or the maker of the appliance?

With all that is going on at the moment - civil discord in the US, a global pandemic, multiple off-the-chart recessions, and climate chaos - this might seem like a desperately unimportant question. And yet it is one that the European Commission has set out to urgently answer. Why? Because it believes that Europe’s economic future rests upon it.


Yes, that humble appliance that whirs away in the corner of your kitchen might not be so innocuous. It turns out that it could just become the casus belli over the future of information.


Don’t take my word for it. In February, a few weeks before major population centres entered national lockdowns, the European Commission put out a punchy communique setting out its preferred direction of travel for a new round of data legislation including a new Data Act, due to drop in the coming months.

Entitled ‘A European strategy for data’, it states: “data is the lifeblood of economic development”. A few paragraphs later, the Commission also asserts that “currently, a small number of Big Tech firms hold a large part of the world’s data”.


If Europe’s economic development isn’t to suffer, those two statements need to be reconciled. Brussels has finally realised that it can no longer countenance a few Silicon Valley firms holding all the cards for something as strategically vital as data.


So while GDPR was all about privacy, the rights of individuals and ensuring basic accountability, the upcoming legislative round two is going to be about who holds economic power.


The push to neutral networks


For those working in smart cities, the 36-page document hones in on a few very pertinent areas. The availability of data, data interoperability, information infrastructures and technologies, and empowering individuals to exercise their rights. It also fleshes out future policy suggestions.


Some of the ideas are to be expected; for example, making high-quality public sector data available for wider commercial use. Haven’t we all been reading that one for years now?


Other ideas have the promise of cold hard cash to back them up, including the offer of investment to fund “the establishment of EU-wide common, interoperable data spaces in strategic sectors” with the aim of overcoming legal and technical barriers to data sharing across organisations. Neutral networks, common protocols. Welcome news to smart city builders no doubt.


But for device manufacturers in particular, the kicker comes a little further on. The commission wants to see “stricter requirements on interfaces for real-time data access and making machine-readable formats compulsory for data from certain products and services, e.g. data coming from smart home appliances or wearables”.


Read between the lines and that can be translated as ‘we think device owners should own and control their data, not device manufacturers so we’re ensuring consumers have the tools to do so”. Paraphrasing one high ranking commission figure, the battle over data from software platforms was lost to Silicon Valley. They aren’t going to allow European consumers to cede another frontier: smart gadgets.

There is one proposal though, which truly would be a game changer if the EC plumped for it - updating Article 20 of GDPR, the right to port one’s data. Under Article 20, companies have 30 days to hand over someone’s data (in pretty much any format they want). It’s one of those laws that sounded great when enacted - the right to move one’s data to any destination - but turns out to have been a paper tiger in practice.


Who wants to wait a month to move their data from one place to another and then potentially spend an age reformatting it? No one. Which is why it is only useful if two companies (not the consumer) agree that they’ll become interoperable. But of course, they never needed Article 20 to do that in the first place.


The revolutionary power of a smart washing machine


The EC’s proposal - to update Article 20 - holds huge revolutionary potential. Why? If I as an individual have programmatic access rights to my particular real-time data feed then suddenly I can unlock my own informational goldmine.

Finally data from my car, fridge, smart watch, and yes, my washing machine, can be deployed to services of my choosing. If I want the data from my washing machine to go to an insurance company, a prospective electricity company, an information dashboard maker, or my local authority then great - I am in control.


Much in the same way the OAuth system works now, when you sign in to a third party platform via Facebook, Google or Amazon, under Article 20 plus, I’d likely just enter my login details, click a few buttons and be done. Any third party I choose would be authorized to view, utilise or even monetise my data. And if I don’t like what I’m getting, I can revoke consent any time I want.


Of course this right would also upturn, not just the smart gadget information economy, but current data arrangements too. A revamped Article 20 would allow people to port machine readable data from their Netflix, LinkedIn, Google or Spotify accounts as well and send those real time streams to anyone who thinks they might be able to do something useful with it such as creating better TV programmes, speeding up employer recruitment, creating a new map application or building a cooperative music platform.


Silver bullet


That single legislative act could in an instant, finally put users of software back in the driver’s seat and break Big Tech’s information monopoly. Data silos would no longer exist for consumer facing data.


Legislators rarely get handed a silver bullet. But of all the policy suggestions outlined in the communique, it’s this one which, as the communique’s author’s themselves recognise, which the Commission will most likely demur from enacting.


Partly this is because there are those within Brussels who still prioritise consumer privacy above economic outcomes. They are less worried about Silicon Valley’s economic choke hold over information than they are about a future in which consumers might take to monetizing and sharing data, thereby indelibly eroding their privacy.

But partly this is also because the Commission knows how hostile a reception they will face from Silicon Valley and their lobbyists. This will surely become Big Tech’s line in the sand. Because once EU citizens are raking in extra services and even hundreds of dollars a year from their data, the rest of the world will no doubt follow suit. Data monopolies will be consigned to the dustbin of history.


To quote the report’s authors one last time, “The stakes are high”. They are indeed. They might never get to take another shot with a silver bullet. Here’s hoping they do.

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