Teresa Scassa - Blog

Displaying items by tag: data ownership

Last year I attended a terrific workshop at UBC’s Allard School of Law. The workshop was titled ‘Property in the City’, and panelists presented work on a broad range of issues relating to law in the urban environment. A special issue of the UBC Law Review has just been published featuring some of the output of this workshop. The issue contains my own paper (discussed below and available here) that explores skirmishes over access to and use of Airbnb platform data.

Airbnb is a ‘sharing economy’ platform that facilitates the booking of short-term accommodation. The company is premised on the idea that many urban dwellers have excess space – rooms in homes or apartments – or have space they do not use at certain periods of the year (entire homes or apartments while on vacation, for example) – and that a digital marketplace can maximize efficient use of this space by matching those seeking temporary accommodation with those having excess space. The Airbnb web site claims that it “connects people to unique travel experiences at any price point” and at the same time “is the easiest way for people to monetize their extra space and showcase it to an audience of millions.”

This characterization of Airbnb is open to challenge. Several studies, including ones by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the City of Vancouver, and the NY State Attorney General suggest that a significant number of units for rent on Airbnb are offered as part of commercial enterprises. The description also belies Airbnb’s disruptive impact. The re-characterization and commodification of ‘surplus’ private spaces neatly evades the regulatory frameworks designed for the marketing of short-term accommodation and leaves licensed short-term accommodation providers complaining that their highly regulated businesses are being undermined by competition from those not bearing the same regulatory burdens. At the same time, many housing advocates and city officials are concerned about the impact of platforms such as Airbnb on the availability and affordability of long-term housing.

These challenges are made more difficult to address by the fact that the data needed to understand the impact of platform companies, along with data about short-term rentals that would otherwise be captured through regulatory processes, are effectively privatized in the hands of Airbnb. Data deficits of this kind pose a challenge to governments, civil society and researchers..

My paper explores the impact of a company such as Airbnb on cities from the perspective of data. I argue that platform-based, short-term rental activities have a fundamental impact on what data are available to municipal governments who struggle to regulate in the public interest, as well as to civil society groups and researchers that attempt to understand urban housing issues. The impacts of platform companies are therefore not just disruptive of incumbent industries; they disrupt planning and regulatory processes by masking activities and creating data deficits. My paper considers some of the currently available solutions to the data deficits, which range from self-help type recourses such as data scraping to entering into data-sharing agreements with the platform companies. Each of these solutions has its limits and drawbacks. I argue that further action may be required by governments to ensure their data needs are adequately met.

Although this paper focuses on Airbnb, it is worth noting that the data deficits discussed in the paper are merely a part of a larger context in which evolving technologies shift control over some kinds of data from public to private hands. Ensuring the ability of governments and civil society to collect, retain, and share data of a sufficient quality to both enable and to enhance governance, transparency, and accountability should be priorities for municipal governments, and should also be supported by law and policy at provincial and federal levels.

 

 

Tuesday, 08 August 2017 08:39

On data ownership rights

In early July 2017 I attended an excellent workshop hosted by researchers at the Centre for Information Technology, Society and Law at the University of Zurich. The objective of the workshop was to bring a group of academic experts together to discuss data ownership rights.

It is perhaps not surprising that the issue of ownership rights in data is bubbling to the surface as we move further into the evolving big data environment. Data have been described as the new “oil” of the information society. They have a tremendous value and are strongly linked to innovation. One of the ways in which industrialized nations have nurtured innovation has been through the creation of intangible property rights such as intellectual property rights. Data ownership rights flow from that same industrial era mind set. However, it is far from clear that this paradigm is a good fit for data and data-related innovation.

The concept of a data ownership right was raised in the EU in the European Data Market Study, Second Interim Report, June 2016. At page 146, it states:

In fact, the way data are made available and the extent to which data are flowing across sectors and organizations, play a fundamental role in sustaining and developing the emergence of a European data-driven economy. In defining and specifying the rights to create, edit, modify, share and restrict access to data, data ownership becomes a pivotal factor affecting a growing number of potential data users and an increasing range of data-related activities.

One might perhaps be forgiven for thinking that there are already data ownership rights; for example, terms of service for websites frequently state that the company behind the website “owns” its data. Canada’s federal government even got its knuckles rapped by the Federal Court of Appeal for making a similar copyright-based claim in one of its data licences (see my post on this decision here). And, while the law of confidential information could be argued to provide a kind of property right in data or information, in reality what is protected by this body of law is the confidentiality of the information. Once confidentiality is lost, it is clear that there is no underlying ‘property’ right in the data.

Policy makers have long been wary of extending IP rights to data – and for some very good reasons. Copyright law, for example, does not protect “facts”, viewing them instead as the building blocks for creativity and expression, and therefore part of the public domain. Of course, copyright law does protect the original selection and arrangement that goes into creating a compilation of facts (i.e. a data set). How extensive this protection ultimately is depends on what a court sees as the taking of a substantial part of that selection or arrangement. It is this protection for compilations of data that no doubt supports those Terms-of-Service claims to ownership of data mentioned above, but the scope and extent of copyright protection in such circumstances is nevertheless limited and uncertain. In the EU, database rights have provided a broader protection for databases, but it still, fundamentally, is not a protection for the data that make up the database.

It is difficult to see where the interest in a data ownership right is coming from. No clear or pressing need to enhance the protection available for data has been identified. Data ownership rights might be more likely to create confusion and uncertainty – and to increase transaction costs and slow innovation – than to improve the current situation. It would be difficult – and hugely problematic – even to begin to try to identify the ‘owners’ of rights in data and to manage the potential competing interests. And while there are undoubtedly issues around the fairness of particular uses of data, or the legitimacy of means used to acquire data, existing laws already offer a range of recourses and remedies that may be applicable in any given case.

The brief summary of our meetings on data ownership is now publicly available, and it addresses these and many other issues relating to data ownership rights. Our conclusions – that there is no evident need for a new data ownership right and that it would be impossibly difficult to define or constrain – offer a caution to those who regard property rights as a panacea in marketplaces of all kinds.

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