IILJ Working Paper 2021/1

Confronting Data Inequality

Angelina Fisher & Thomas Streinz

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Data conveys significant social, economic, and political power. Unequal control over data — a pervasive form of digital inequality — is a problem for economic development, human agency, and collective self-determination that needs to be addressed. This paper takes some steps in this direction by analyzing the extent to which law facilitates unequal control over data and by suggesting ways in which legal interventions might lead to more equal control over data. By unequal control over data, we not only mean having or not having data, but also having or not having power over deciding what becomes and what does not become data. We call this the power to datafy. We argue that data inequality is in turn a function of unequal control over the infrastructures that generate, shape, process, store, transfer, and use data. Existing law often regulates data as an object to be transferred, protected, and shared and is not always attuned to the salience of infrastructural control over data. While there are no easy solutions to the variegated causes and consequences of data inequality, we suggest that retaining flexibility to experiment with different approaches, reclaiming infrastructural control, systematically demanding enhanced transparency, pooling of data and bargaining power, and differentiated and conditional access to data mechanisms may help in confronting data inequality more effectively going forward.

This paper was written as a background paper for the World Development Report 2021: Data for Better Lives. The paper draws on collaborative ideas generated at NYU School of Law’s Guarini Global Law & Tech initiative, where the authors teach and research Global Data Law.