European Parliament misses the opportunity to build the Data Commons

July 30, 2021

In mid-July, the ITRE committee of the European Parliament adopted its report on the proposed Data Governance Act (DGA). Unlike many other digital policy files that are part of the shaping Europe’s digital future Strategy, the DGA has been remarkably free from controversy. The report was adopted with broad support from nearly all political groups. The European Parliament’s position introduces a number of improvements into the Commission’s proposal. Nevertheless, the proposal is still a missed opportunity to build in Europe not just a data economy, but also a fair data society. And to foster Data Commons approaches that are based on collective stewardship, and not private control of data.

What is at stake?

With the DGA, the Commission wants to unlock more data for the EU economy. It is based on the assumption that a lack of access to data is holding back the development of the European data ecosystem, and that establishing clear governance structures will help stakeholders to capitalise on the scale of a “single market for data”. To do this, the DGA proposes new types of regulated data intermediaries: “Data Sharing Providers” and “Data Altruism Organisations”. The Commission’s ambition to create a single market for new types of regulated intermediaries raises a number of issues, spanning from the relationship with personal data protection rules enshrined in the GDPR to the role of open access-based sharing models. And while these issues have been partially addressed by the European Parliament, the fundamental lack of purpose remains unsolved. The DGA still focuses on creating a (regulated) single market for data and on maximising the volume and intensity of its use. What is instead needed is a much stronger focus on fostering data sharing mechanisms aimed at maximising the societal value of data. It is as if policymakers forgot that the market and industry which are to benefit from increased data usage are embedded in the society.

A missed opportunity for the Data Commons

The report adopted by the ITRE committee – which will be the negotiation mandate for the upcoming trilogue negotiations – is an improvement over the Commission’s proposal. The ITRE report:

  • clearly excludes Open Access Commons resources, such as Wikidata or Europeana, from its scope;
  • contains a number of amendments aimed at better aligning the Act with the GDPR, by stipulating that the latter should have precedence in cases of conflict;
  • clarifies the rules for transfer of public sector data to third countries by empowering the Commission to put limits to such exchanges in case of insufficient data protection rules in the destination countries;
  • puts data interoperability measures within the scope of the Act by introducing obligations for data intermediaries and tasking the European Data Innovation Board with devising applicable guidelines.

But on the key issue of giving the newly introduced data governance structure a clear purpose that goes beyond the existing status quo, the European Parliament has missed the chance to provide meaningful improvements. These could have pointed to an alternative vision of data governance built on commons-based principles. Such a vision would require governance models that are not primarily based on private control of data but on collective stewardship. The original proposal for the DGA introduced relevant measures – most notably data cooperatives – but they are still placed in a framework that is designed to maximise the volume and intensity of data use. Another case in point are the amendments that proposed a common data spaces framework - and which were not adopted by ITRE.

The position adopted by the European Parliament strengthens only minimally a Data Commons approach. It does give more prominence to data cooperatives but does not consider the possibility of expanding the concept to meaningfully empower data subjects through collective data rights. Interoperability measures remain vague and do not meet increasingly common expectations that interoperability will lead to a more decentralised, and therefore fair, data ecosystem.

What is still missing is a clear reorientation towards a society-wide vision on data governance that strives for something more than a single market for data, where citizens must be enabled to participate in social life without necessarily having to give up personal data to commercial entities. This would be based on interoperability and data portability as design principles for the decentralization of the online ecosystem.

For the European Data strategy to work for Europe’s citizens, we need a clear blueprint for a fair data society, enabled by policies that support data use in the public interest. A vision that allows to derive society-wide benefits, and not just private ones, from the ongoing datafication of all aspects of social and economic life.