Out today, Access Rules: Freeing Data from Big Tech for a Better Future is a powerful and urgent call to action: to improve our lives and our societies, we must demand open access to data for all.

Information is power, and the time is now for digital liberation. Access Rules mounts a strong and hopeful argument for how informational tools at present in the hands of a few could instead become empowering machines for everyone. By forcing data-hoarding companies to open access to their data, we can reinvigorate both our economy and our society. Authors Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Thomas Ramge contend that if we disrupt monopoly power and create a level playing field, digital innovations can emerge to benefit us all. In order for us to limit global warming, contain a virus like COVID-19, or successfully fight poverty, everyone—including citizens and scientists, start-ups and established companies, as well as the public sector and NGOs—must have access to data. When everyone has access to the informational riches of the data age, the nature of digital power will change. Information technology will find its way back to its original purpose: empowering all of us to use information so we can thrive as individuals and as societies.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the University of Oxford.

Thomas Ramge has authored more than fifteen books about technology, innovation, and decision-making and has won numerous publishing awards.  

How is access to data related to power?

Quite obviously, knowing more about somebody else than vice versa offers advantages in negotiation and transactions. That’s the direct link between information and power. But there is a bigger point, too. Better decision-making translates into better outcomes: those that decide well become more powerful relative to those that don’t. A key ingredient to good decision-making is having access to comprehensive information regarding the decision. This is true for individuals but also for businesses and for societies: if a company knows when the competitor will offer a new product and at what price beforehand, it will be able to react, perhaps by lowering price or launching a competing product just before.

The central question of the book is: How do we legitimize—and limit—the power of knowledge? How would you answer that in just a few sentences?

Informational power is problematic when it is the result of a hugely uneven and concentrated ability to gather information, such as the one currently occupied by Big Tech. Big Tech is powerful not because they are hugely innovative, but because of the commanding position they occupy in the global information flows. Such power is neither prompting a stream of innovation, nor aiding societal progress. 

What is “data colonialism,” and how can we reverse it?

Colonialism is the exploitation of the resources of one nation by another through the exertion of brutal power and dynamics of deliberate subjugation. Similarly, data colonialism is the extraction of data holding valuable insights from one nation for the almost exclusive benefit of another, often with power dynamics resembling those from the colonial past.

What is the difference between data use regulation and data protection regulation, and why is that distinction important?

Data protection regulation aims to empower individuals to stop others from gaining insights from data in the name of privacy protection. Data use regulation facilitates the utilization of data, especially non-personal data, to uncover novel insights, facilitate innovation and enable societal progress. Data protection regulation aims to deliberately constrain humanity’s ability to use data to understand the world in the name of privacy. Data use regulation’s goal is to help humanity understand more and better the world they live in, with all its nuance and complexity – and to make better decisions based on it.

In the book, you write, “Data monopolies are the theft of progress.” Can you explain why this is?

Innovation is the fuel that drives not only economic competition and keeps market concentration in check, it also enables humanity to advance and societies to progress – from medicine and mobility, education and equal opportunities, to communication and commerce. In the data age, innovation requires more than a good idea. To transform the idea into practice one needs access to data, to analyze and to learn from. Without broad and comprehensive access to data, innovation is stunted, and thus progress.

Why is the metaphor “data is the new oil” wrong?

Because it suggests that data is like any other material resource. But it isn’t. Unlike oil, data is non-rivalrous (as the economists say) – the same data can be used by different people at the same time without necessarily reducing the value they gain from it. Just think of a novel: many thousands can read the same book at the same time; the pleasure and value they derive from reading the book is not limited by others reading it as well. Because of this crucial difference between informational goods and material goods, we can’t treat data like oil. It does not do justice to its unique quality. 

Why isn’t sharing data a zero-sum game?

Because data is non-rivalrous. It can be utilized by multiple people without loss of value. When firms share data with others, nothing is taken from them. They can continue to mine the data for valuable insights, just not exclusively. That creates an additional and welcome incentive for companies to utilize the data they have access to in multiple ways – they use the data resource more sustainably, not just once but multiple times. And it can be used for completely different purposes; applications or innovations the original collector might have never thought about. Giving access to all bright minds that can foster technological, economic and societal progress might diminish competitive advantages of a few data monopolists but produce value and progress for the many.  It’s very different from the current situation in which up to 85 percent of the data collected by businesses is never used – not even once.

Can you explain how sharing data does not jeopardize trade secrets or personal privacy?

We suggest that only data should be shared that is non-personal (or has been depersonalized) or does not contain obvious trade secrets. That way, no delicate rights of individuals and companies are being encroached. But much of the data collected today is non-personal, for instance sensor data from machines in manufacturing. Or think of weather data. Or data about engine vibration in cars, blade efficiency of wind turbines, road conditions, heat dissipation of buildings and the like.  

What is the first step we as individuals can take to help make open data sharing a reality?

First of all: As individuals we should not share more personal data with Big Tech but less. And then we should promote the idea of sharing non-personal data in the companies or organizations we work for. New access rules for data are cause for the common good and of societal progress. We might also tell this the politicians that are up for elections.