Can Amazon, Facebook, Google be tamed by being forced to share their data?

A major German party thinks mandatory data-sharing with rivals and the public can rein in Big Tech.

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Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) has fleshed out its idea for a 'data for everyone' law that would see the likes of Google and Amazon forced to open up some of their data to the public and to commercial rivals.

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The SPD is the junior partner in Angela Merkel's coalition government, so the party's ideas have a chance of coming to fruition.

Party leader Andrew Nahles first floated the idea of the law in a guest article for Handelsblatt last August, in which she compared the new data-driven economy to 19th-century gold rushes and industrialization. 

Facebook, Amazon and Google have become extremely powerful off the back of users' data, she said, and use their control of that data to enforce monopolies that stymie startups and hurt consumers.

On Wednesday, the SPD firmed up the idea by releasing a draft discussion paper, maintaining that "a democratic digital order needs truth and competition, and to generate wealth and distribute it equitably".

What does that mean in practice? When it comes to data, the SPD wants to force big tech to share anonymized and non-personal data that could help others thrive, rather than keeping that data locked up in proprietary silos. 

The party says putting this data into the public domain — by providing APIs — will effectively break up data monopolies. There would still be protection for sensitive business secrets and other data with legal confidentiality.

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With mandatory data-sharing, the party posits, business models would shift from "often dubious" data collection to the "provision of high-quality data" and the use of that data by "many actors" who would gain the ability to "innovate and compete".

"Innovation is increasingly driven by data," the paper reads. "The big tech companies can be much more innovative than others if they use it for big data and machine learning. Google's autonomous cars are doing far better than their competitors, because they have access to the data troves of the group. One has to do something to counter this. Digital quasi-monopolies hinder innovation and curtail competition and consumers' freedom of choice, endangering the social market economy."

At the same time, the discussion paper maintains that "the obligatory release of data records must not affect either the incentive to collect data, nor investment in business models based on that data".

The SPD also highlights the case of data that can be understood to be common property, such as mobility and geodata. This data, the party said, should be made available through "trusted data rooms" to both private companies and civil society groups. 

In effect, this would be a dramatic expansion of the open data principle that's already mandated for federal authorities in Germany–though the paper also envisages a "common European data room".

The SPD's plan can be seen to some extent as part of a wider crackdown on the US tech giants. It is notable that the German antitrust authority recently targeted Facebook over its data collection, in a way that melds privacy enforcement — a task that Facebook argues should be left to data-protection authorities — with a competition-law-focused pushback against exploitative business terms.

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Data monopolies are a new phenomenon, so it's only natural to see regulators and policymakers responding creatively. Even in the US, this week Californian governor Gavin Newsom proposed forcing Facebook and Google to pay users for their data — a so-called 'data dividend' for consumers in the companies' home state.

However, the SPD's proposal is not just about reining in big tech. As SPD digital-policy expert Saskia Esken told the Tagesspiegel newspaper, enforced data sharing could also provide the data that's needed to aid German AI research — a field currently dominated by the US and China, thanks to the dominance of their big tech firms and, in the case of China, authoritarian data-collection practices.

"We find ourselves bracketed between these two countries, and they pursue approaches that we do not want," said Esken. "[We want] to reconcile the innovative power of the free flow of data with data protection."

The SPD will discuss the draft on Thursday along with experts and stakeholders. Tagesspiegel reports a parliamentarian from Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) as saying the proposal sounds good "but is not thought through," as anonymization of data removes its value for big-data analysis and AI purposes. 

However, SPD-affiliated technical experts hit back against that assertion, saying it depends on what sort of AI is being trained.

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