Big data, a public resource

By deciding to exclude content from Canadian media, the multinational Meta is choosing to ignore the fundamental nature of social networks. The DNA of social networks lies in the ability of users to disseminate any content that does not contravene the laws. In return, the social network promotes the data produced by the actions of users. This is how he generates income. By excluding content to serve its interests, Meta behaves like a censor.

A common trait of many devices in the connected world is that they generate value by using in whole or in part data generated by others. In The duty on September 25, Alain McKenna explains that “Quebec Internet users […] are stolen for absolutely nothing and without even complaining about their personal data by foreign companies, which make billions of dollars in profits every year thanks to them.” Indeed, the default operation of the Internet allows the monopolization without compensation by large platforms of data produced by a multitude of individuals. Laws must correct this imbalance caused by what economists call “surveillance capitalism”.

Social networks collect and compile massive data produced by users in order to calculate user attention and then sell targeted advertisements. They also benefit from information posted online by users wishing to “share” information that they consider interesting. This generates value creation.

Several business models associated with digital technologies are based in whole or in part on the generally unrequited use of data circulating in connected spaces. For example, to develop its facial recognition technologies Clearview AI sucked up billions of images available online to build a database. This is true for personal data, but also for other units of information. George RR Martin, the author of the saga Game Of Thrones, and other writers launched lawsuits against the start-up Californian OpenAI, which they accuse of having used their works to power ChatGPT in disregard of their copyright. They are not the only ones to worry about this monopolization of the value of the data circulating in the connected space.

Social networks, facial recognition devices as well as generative artificial intelligence applications work thanks to the availability of data deposits found in digital spaces. Many of these data are lawfully in the public domain. For example, texts and images that legitimately circulate to inform the public. These resources come from all connected individuals. Once massified (to become massive data, “ big data ), they often reveal very little about a particular individual, but they feed platforms which can, for example, detect what captures attention or the state of traffic on a street.

At the level of an individual, the value of this data often appears derisory. But for the public, it is a resource that has important implications. The benefits that can be derived from these resources must be shared equitably. Otherwise, the profits go to those who exploit the data, such as social networks which sell targeted advertising, while individuals or other producers of information, such as press companies, are deprived of the fruits of this exploitation.

For example, by capturing the value generated by this data for their own benefit, several Internet companies contribute to impoverishing the capacity to produce information validated according to good journalistic practices. Hence the need to put in place means to rechannel part of the value resulting from the valorization of data circulating in the digital space. The Online News Act (which the multinational Meta is contesting by censoring Canadian media) establishes mechanisms to share the value generated by the data produced by platform users. This aims to ensure the viability of news production according to recognized validation methods.

Several states have undertaken to put in place laws to regulate online systems. These measures reflect the fact that the data produced by masses of individuals constitutes a public resource. Equitable sharing of the value of big data between information producers and platforms is essential if we want to guarantee the availability of resources essential to the functioning of democratic processes and the promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions. Unless we resign ourselves to being subjected to “surveillance capitalism”, it is urgent to put in place digital policies that guarantee that resources are equitably shared.

Professor, Pierre Trudel teaches media and information technology law at the University of Montreal.

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