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Digipower Technical Reports: Understanding Influence and Power in the Data Economy

Pidoux, Jessica; Gursky, Jacob; Bowyer, Alex; Dehaye, Paul-Olivier

There is an imbalance of control over personal data between service providers and civil society. While service providers acquire knowledge and influence individuals’ behaviour through data, individuals do not own their data, and the personal data ecosystem lacks the transparency necessary to be understood. The #digipower investigation tackles this imbalance by demonstrating the data economy’s social consequences and providing solutions for a new economy in this technical report.

This report is complemented by a case studies report illustrating flows and usages of data with practical examples from participants’ data. The investigation maps out the ways that personal data is collected in both the physical and the digital realms. It reveals the commercial purposes driving the data economy and how these affect our private, public and social lives. In this investigation, fifteen participants, among them members of the European and Finnish parliaments, EU and Finnish civil servants, NGO directors, and journalists, were coached through a participative methodology that is highly replicable by anyone: a learning process situated in the participants’ experiences as they recover their data through legal and technical means, to then make sense of it collectively.

Using facts gathered by participants about dozens of companies like Twitter, the retailer Gigantti, Google, and newspapers like Aamulehti and Helsingin Sanomat, we introduce the concept of Infrastructural Power: the mechanisms by which providers and platforms exert their influences over today’s data economy. We explain these mechanisms and their effects using industry jargon, so that civil society can take a role in challenging power dynamics around data. Four processes explain how infrastructural power is accumulated and exerted. These are broken into 10 specific mechanisms - such as inference, ranking, and data funnelling - that involve two feedback loops influencing users’ actions and centralising data flows. Our reflective conclusions provide a manifesto and new scenarios for ensuring the data economy remains focused on the common good, including engineering design, proportionality of data collection, and social care.

The other digipower report is titled "Digipower Technical Reports: Auditing the Data Economy through Personal Data Access" and available at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6554177

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