Creating a Digital Commons

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* Report: Creating a Digital Commons. By James Meadway. IPPR, The Centre for Economic Justice, 2020



"There are, today, almost no parts of life that are untouched by the presence of data. Virtually every action we take produces some form of digital trail – our phones track our locations, our browsers track searches, our social network apps log our friends and family – even when we are only dimly aware of it.

It is the combination of this near-ubiquitous gathering of data with fast processing that has generated the economic and social transformation of the last few years – one that, if current developments in artificial intelligence (AI) continue, is only likely to accelerate. Combined with data-enabled technology, from the internet of things to 3D printing, we are potentially on the cusp of a radically different economy and society.

As the world emerges from the first phase of the pandemic, the demands for a socially just and sustainable recovery have grown. The data economy can and should be an essential part of that reconstruction, from the efficient management of energy systems to providing greater flexibility in working time. However, without effective public policy, and democratic oversight and management, the danger is that the tendencies in the data economy that we have already seen towards monopoly and opacity – reinforced, so far, by the crisis – will continue to dominate. It is essential, then, that planning for a fairer, more sustainable economy in the future build in active public policy for data."

Policy Proposals

James Meadway:

" IPPR’s new report argues that competition policy alone is not the answer, and that ways to pool, share and use data must be developed, so it can be used for public benefit rather than private profit. We call this a “digital commons”, based on the idea that the value of data is a shared, social resource, and lay out ways in which governments, locally and nationally, can better manage this new source of value.

To achieve this, the report calls for a series of changes by national government including:

  • Creating a new UK Office for the Digital Commons, with strong regulatory powers over existing digital service providers and a duty to intervene in favour of open data, and to ensure public benefit from all data.
  • Establishing a widely understood definition of a new kind of ‘data trust’, distinct from conventional trusts, and ensuring resources are available to promote their creation and use.
*Protecting valuable UK digital data, such as that derived from the NHS, from unfair international exploitation – notably in trade deals after the UK leaves the EU. 

It also recommends steps to bring the value created by data under local and regional control, as is already being pioneered by innovative cities such as Amsterdam and Barcelona. Local authorities, metro mayors and devolved administrations can do the same in the UK, including by:

  • Using their procurement powers to begin building a local digital commonwealth by compelling companies to share data as a pre-condition of winning a service contract, and to build the use of data for local public good into their guidelines.
  • Pushing for locally collected data to be made open to use by others in anonymised form as a matter of course, as with TfL’s open-source data on transport use in London.
  • Ensuring that newly developed digital infrastructure, such as smart power grids, is held under local and democratic control."