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Data Ethics Risk Propping Up Data Capitalism

Guest post by Ezio Di Nucci

None of the data ethics classics – covering security, transparency, privacy, bias and discrimination – actually challenge data capitalism. Rather, they enable the primitive accumulation of capital, writes Ezio Di Nucci, Professor of Bioethics and Director of the Centre for Medical Science and Technology Studies at the University of Copenhagen.

Everybody loves data ethics. Not just academics, activists and – increasingly – politicians. Big tech is also very fond of data ethics. What most are worried about is not the data ethics but rather the data economics, so that difference is worth looking at.

The classic ethical risk – what is actually happening now – is massive data accumulation occurring despite current guidelines are being followed. And if the overall problem is data accumulation itself, then data ethics is the wrong medicine, because it won’t necessarily stop the extraordinary accumulation of data assets; in fact, data ethics might even result in further growth of these data-assets, because the need of ethically handling the data.

If you are worried about data-capitalism, then data ethics is not necessarily your friend, you must instead turn your emphasis to data economics. First of all, one has to accept that data ethics doesn’t actually challenge – it might in fact be propping up – data capitalism, but perhaps one isn’t that worried about the latter and therefore happy enough to go back to the former. In other words: If you are interested in a critical rather than a reformist agenda, maybe data ethics is for you after all.

You should in fact be worried about data capitalism, and care of public health isn’t insulated from that either. As Mariana Mazzucato argues in The Entrepreneurial State and The Value of Everything, we should think of the public sector and the state as productive engines within our economies, not blinkered by fastidious free riders only. Moreover, the distinction between the private and public sector is a myth.

That’s no consolation though, on the contrary. What it means, is that publicly managed and even publicly-owned healthcare data isn’t safe from capitalist wealth accumulation, so that if you are worried about Amazon, you should also be worried about your health data as well.

Here comes the crucial bit: The reason why you should be worried isn’t data security; it isn’t transparency; and it isn’t privacy either (and no, nor is it algorithmic bias and discrimination). All those things are important, clearly – some of them crucial, in fact. The problem is that none of those data ethics classics actually challenges data capitalism, each of those issues being in fact an enabler of primitive accumulation of capital.

Perhaps at is at this point that you want to stop reading because you are suspicious. This author is just applying Marxist ideas. But actually, that ‘infamous’ concept comes from Adam Smith. So, all should be worried about data capitalism, even if you are not a Marxist. Yes, the author probably is one and please add this as a disclaimer).

It turns out that even inequality is similarly affected by the data ethics paradox above, namely, the same counterfactual that makes those four pillars of data ethics -security, transparency, privacy, bias – into capital-enablers of inequality as well. Reversely it is suggested that a more equal distribution of capital’s profits would be the solution when you consider inequality as a problem.

As I have argued that more transparent and safe handling of data is not the solution, data ethics doesn’t stop primitive asset accumulation, then it won’t stop data capitalism from becoming ‘too big to fail’, thereby undermining our critical public infrastructure. In the end the issue is not whether the state is like the private sector- as in productivity – but rather whether data capital has infiltrated the state – as in overtaking.

Summing up, the problem is neither strictly ethical – as in security, transparency, privacy, bias – nor strictly political – as in distributive justice and inequality. The problem is, in one word power and the exploitation that comes with it, however big or small, our share of that cake is.

Two Objections
Having put forward my argument, let me put forward two plausible objections before I’m done. If the worry is data capitalism, should publicly owned healthcare data be protected from hackers? Two problems here. If you are worried about accumulation and power, then the problem is ownership itself rather than who owns the data – which is another way of saying that privatization, like inequality and data ethics, is not the root cause. Two, there is the well-documented phenomenon of public healthcare institutions accumulating data to sell to capitalist, like NHS England.

My second objection argues that if data is evidence, then more data is better evidence, and how could anyone have anything against better evidence? It’s a complex issue, especially for me being a philosopher, but let me just say this: Equating data with evidence is like confusing price with value; you might end up with a fat wallet, but empty-handed.

Photo: Alexander Sinn