Data Access Initiative
Information intermediaries are holding power arising from the exclusive access to user data. Platforms like Facebook and Google collect information on interests and social activities, on our routines, explicit and implicit opinions and desires. They have access to an accurate impression of the entanglement of citizens’ private and public communication in the context of information spheres and social networks, which leads to the formation of opinions and actions.
This data, especially in an accumulated analysis, offers insights into opinion formation and media usage habits on a large scale. This provides knowledge on individual data trails and on political and social behaviour of citizens on a collective level. The information asymmetry that results from the disclosed analysis of this data opens up a field of questions such as: Are certain types of content privileged compared to others, and how do these choices influence our perception of information or the quality of public discourse?
In Search for Safeguards
The state and regulatory bodies are still searching for instruments to monitor and safeguard democratic rights regarding the increasing influence of intermediaries. This is not only due to the reactive nature of policy making, but also to the complexity of this task.
The project #Datenspende by AlgorithmWatch.org and Prof. Dr. Katharina Zweig which was funded by several media authorities showed to which extent search results for political key words varied for different users in the German 2017 election period. By collecting data through an online tool that users installed voluntarily, this study offered new and important insights into the degree of personalization of political search results.
Despite the significant results of this study other questions remain unsolved. For instance: Do intermediaries guarantee free access? By which criteria do algorithms select the information we see? Are these unknown criteria free of manipulation? How can the absence of discrimination be monitored and safeguarded?
Steps to Balance the Information Asymmetry
Research that aims to further dismantle this black box of intermediary power faces the difficulty of restricted access to information. Researchers are struggling with obstacles like high costs or even threats of penalty and criminal investigation for the collection of data. The data of intermediaries is protected as property – however, not as the property of citizens but as the property of these private corporations. Independent of whether the data is actually the companies’ property, this asymmetry of access leads to urgent questions for regulators and scientists.
The Aim of this Initiative
The Data Access Initiative was founded by the Media Policy Lab, a project of the media authority Berlin-Brandenburg (mabb). It is an initiative that strives to formulate and discuss regulatory questions with regulatory bodies, NGOs and research institutions in Germany and other European countries. Some of these questions are:
- How should an efficient and transparent process to monitor digital media pluralism in intermediaries be designed?
- Which bodies should be involved as part of the monitoring process?
- Which roles should civil society play in this regard?
- Which information must be provided to ensure that manipulation and discrimination do not occur?
- To which extent is transparency possible and necessary?
- Access to what specific data would be necessary and sufficient to fulfil the safeguard function?
- How can data protection and private property rights be balanced in this process to best serve democratic values?