UK must rethink data ownership to prevent dominance of big tech, report warns

A “complete rethink” on how digital data is collected and used is needed to prevent a handful of tech giants dominating people’s lives for decades to come, a new report has said.

A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) claims six firms – Facebook, Google parent company Alphabet, Apple, Microsoft, Netflix and Amazon – are gaining ever-increasing control over valuable information.

The IPPR’s report says a new UK digital data regulator should be created to drive open access and common ownership of data.

It also urges better protection for particularly sensitive data, such as that derived from the NHS.

The report highlights that the combined value of the six mentioned tech giants has risen by more than 1.9 trillion dollars (£1.4 trillion) since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and argues that the Covid-19 outbreak has caused society to become even more dependent on data through remote working and increased medical surveillance to help fight the virus.

The report also suggests that this value increase among the biggest firms reflects the expectation that they stand to gain disproportionately from the shift to more data dependence.

James Meadway, associate fellow at IPPR and author of the report, said: “Covid-19 risks further increasing the economic and social dominance of Big Tech, with stock market valuations skyrocketing as society becomes more dependent on data through homeworking and increased medical surveillance.

“This Covid effect means their power to affect and influence our daily lives is becoming increasingly removed from public control.

“It also represents a loss to us all, as most of the value of trillions of gigabytes of data, derived directly from us every year, is held privately by these companies instead of being available for the common good.

“We need to use the national regulation of data to develop a broader concept of a digital commons, with data derived from us held and used for the public good.

“A first step should be establishing a new Office for the Digital Commons, with the power to regulate big tech companies and enable shared and open-source use of our valuable data assets.”

The report calls for local authorities to push for data collected in their area to be made open and accessible in an anonymised form to help with other projects.