The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Tuukka Lehtiniemi: Reorienting Datafication? New Roles For Users In Online Platform Markets

Tuukka Lehtiniemi, Helsinki Institute for Information Technology

We view large-scale internet platforms as intermediaries of multi-sided markets that mediate connections between two or more parties, typically including users and advertisers (e.g. Rieder & Sire 2013). Most platform-enabled markets seem to organize their participants’relations with similar principles, reflecting underlying assumptions about the roles for participants and the logic of value creation. Simultaneously, a key feature of the market economy is its ability to produce new markets as a response to new affordances created by the evolution of technology and the evolving needs and wants of consumers. In this paper, our interest is in personal data management initiatives. We view them as emerging platforms whose underlying principles are different from the current large-scale platforms. Zuboff (2015) argues that market economy tends to gravitate towards a dominating underlying logic that becomes the taken-for-granted context for the business models of firms. In the previous century, the dominating model was mass production -based corporate capitalism.

Zuboff characterizes the dominating market logic of the online space as ‘surveillance capitalism’: the extraction of data about people, with the aim of predicting and influencing their behavior for profit. The firm provides products or services for people to use, and then targets users with ubiquitous data extraction. Individuals become the sources of surveillance assets, i.e., raw material for later stages of production. The firm converts the extracted surveillance assets into commodified objects. This conversion happens by employing highly specialized analysis capabilities. The outcomes are statistical predictions of, e.g., qualities, preferences, characteristics, needs or wants. The product is then converted into revenue, which comes from third parties. They are most typically advertisers, but can potentially be any beneficiaries of behavioral prediction or influencing.

A defining feature of the value creation model described by Zuboff is the lack of reciprocities and feedback loops between the firm and users. The process of data extraction is not reciprocal, and firm is in fact indifferent to the content of data as such, as long as the users' actions can be converted into surveillance assets. The production of objects from surveillance assets happens without feedback loops to the users, via employing specialized means of production that rely on proprietary knowledge and material capabilities, including proprietary data assets potentially extracted over a wide range of users and services. In the end, the revenues of the firm do not come from the users either. The users are the source of raw materials for production, but not part of the production process or the sources of monetary income. We view the markets operated by current large-scale internet platforms as instances of this market logic, embedded into the ways platform companies collect, organize and use data. It seems to have developed into the default business model of not only the existing platform companies, but also many technology startups.

While the model may have become a default, it is naturally not the end of the capacity of the market economy to create new market forms. In this paper, we explore potential alternatives to the surveillance model. Our empirical cases include two commercial startup initiatives (Meeco and Cozy Cloud) and a research-originated one (OpenPDS developed at MIT). They aim, with varying emphases, as we will show in the paper, to enable the individual to manage, control, or benefit from personal data. Our underlying hypothesis is that, as they seek to provide individuals with technological capabilities towards personal data that do not generally exist at the moment, we can identify the particular ways in which they potentially disrupt the existing market logic. Our empirical material consists of interviews, questionnaire responses, discussions, public materials including websites and talks, and first-hand use experience of product offerings. We investigate the following questions: How do these initiatives aim to position individuals in the markets? In what ways would this positioning differ from the market order of Zuboff's surveillance capitalism? What sort of alternatives - if alternatives is what they are - do they propose to the value creation process?

In the paper we unpack these initiatives in order to identify overarching features they strive to achieve in relation the above questions. The identified features include, first, building platform technologies that make individuals the intermediaries of personal data uses. This means that individuals can set up processes to aggregate data over various sources and perform analyses on these data, made possible by third-party analysis service vendors, for the benefit of themselves. These features attempt to include the individuals within the production process of data analysis. Second, making individuals exchange participants in the markets of personal data, striving to make them the primary sources of context-laden data about themselves. This attempts to circumvent the non-reciprocal extraction and prediction analyses that are necessarily statistical in nature, favoring the exchange of subjectively relevant forms of data assets. And third, the building of an intermediary that acts as a proxy, or a sort of a privacy firewall, between individuals and data analysis performers. This capability essentially aims at pre-performing certain intermediate steps of the analysis process on the raw material data, so that not the full data itself, but only a ""refined"" part thereof, reaches the value creation processes of the surveillance industry.

The above features work towards shaping the individual’s role in the surveillance economy, albeit with varying scales and different entry points into the value creation process. They could balance some of the asymmetries in capabilities between individuals and firms by affecting the new divisions between firms and populations in the online space. Importantly, in addition to shaping the individual’s role, they potentially have the capacity of affecting the positions and capabilities of firms that do not currently have access to proprietary assets to leverage personal data for value creation purposes.

Rieder, B., and G. Sire. 2013. ‘Conflicts of Interest and Incentives to Bias: A Microeconomic Critique of Google’s Tangled Position on the Web.’NMS 16(2). Zuboff, S. 2015. ‘Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization.’JIT 30.

Tuukka Lehtiniemi