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Exploring how personal data is accounted for, governed, and valued by Big Tech firms

Exploring how personal data is accounted for, governed, and valued by Big Tech firms

by DT Cochrane

DT Cochrane

When I began my post-doctoral work with Professor Kean Birch, I was excited to engage with the faculty and students of the Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change. With an academic background in economics, and a PhD from York’s Graduate Program in Social & Political Thought, I thought I had much both to contribute and to learn. The COVID-19 pandemic upended that opportunity.

COVID also shifted the scope of the research project with Professor Birch. Originally, I was going to travel to either the UK or California to conduct interviews. This would have been a welcome expansion of my academic research skills. Of course, this travel became impossible. However, Professor Birch and I managed to pivot.

I was able to contribute my familiarity with corporate financial disclosures, as well as my quantitative analysis and visualization skills to an article that Professor Birch had been developing with a previous post-doctoral researcher, Callum Ward. That paper, ‘Data as asset?: The measurement, governance & valuation of digital personal data by Big Tech’, was recently published in the journal Big Data & Society. In the paper, we examined the idea that personal data is an important asset responsible for the phenomenal growth of Big Tech companies—Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook.

We observed that the companies’ disclosures, as well as their earnings calls with investors and asset managers, are nearly devoid of discussions of personal data, let alone as a valuable asset. Rather, we noted that the emphasis was on monetizing users. We argued that personal data is made measurable and legible by Big Tech via ‘techcraft’ that assetizes users.

Assetizing users is an important component of the rentiership of the broader digital technology landscape. Professor Birch and I have also published an article on 'Big Tech: Four emerging forms of digital rentiership' which all stem from varying degrees of control over digital ‘ecosystems’ that include—but exceed—platforms.

Uber-low Taxes Lyft Ride-sharing Revenue report

Professor Birch and I are continuing to examine forms of digital rentiership by extending our analysis to ‘unicorns’: start-ups that achieve a valuation of $1 billion (USD). Part way through my post-doctoral position, I was offered a policy research position with the advocacy organization Canadians for Tax Fairness (C4TF). One of the issues that C4TF campaigns on is ‘Levelling the Digital Playing Field’. My research experience during the post-doc has informed my work on this issue, including the publication of a recent C4TF report on the tax implications of Uber and Lyft’s business model.

I expect that there will more opportunities for the research and advocacy of C4TF to benefit from the work of Professor Birch and other members of the EUC community.

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