Data cartels: Companies that control and monopolize our information Sarah Lamdan Stanford University Press (2022)
Information technology platforms are ubiquitous in modern life. From friendship and genealogy to community activism, commercial deals, and philanthropy, people rely on networked technologies to enable dialogue, authentication, payment, and more. It’s hard to remember our daily lives before smartphones; those who have never known otherwise find those days unimaginable.
Sarah Lamdan Data cartels is the latest book in the genre to critically analyze such platforms, identify the bias, unfairness and associated harm, and question why these for-profit companies are allowed to operate the way they do. Lamdan focuses on information and data brokers. They are relatively unknown, unlike social media and search engine companies (respective 2018 book targets Antisocial media author: Siva Vaidhyanathan and Algorithms of oppression Safia Umoja Noble).
Lamdan, a lawyer and librarian, focuses on RELX and Thomson Reuters, with additional attention to Bloomberg and other commercial publishers. She details their activities, exploring their products and services in the arenas of brokerage data, academic research, legal information, financial data and news. Lamdan argues that these “absolutely legal” actions harm individuals and society and undermine democracy.
Everyone should decide how to use their digital data, not just tech companies
That this is a story of legislative and regulatory failure is clear from the outset and borne out throughout. The documented withdrawal of the US government from the public media shows particularly clearly how different the current practice is from the previous century’s practice of regulating radio and television. Today, for example, only about 1% of NPR’s operating funds come directly from the federal government. Congress has failed to pass laws to limit the companies’ use of data, and courts have repeatedly weakened protections. Some people were left to fend for themselves. Even if they can document misconduct, firms’ liability is limited. Data brokers have successfully defended free speech in the face of lawsuits seeking damages for spreading inaccurate information.
The Lamdan solution is a legal and regulatory regime that treats information and data as public resources and provides a public digital infrastructure. In her vision of a functional information ecosystem, private companies would still operate, but public infrastructure would provide critical information without compromising personal privacy. This kind of library public digital infrastructure will require significant resources. Lamdan does not offer any cost estimates. But if you extrapolate the more than $470 million annual budget of the US National Library of Medicine, which provides fairly reliable public access to health information, it quickly becomes apparent that the price tag will be several billion.
However, the US’s track record with legal and financial information is abysmal. Currently, “when the government provides information to the public, it does so through outdated, inadequate online tools and platforms,” Lamdan writes. They pale in comparison to paid corporate services. Any researcher using the government’s PACER or EDGAR platforms to search for court documents or financial data, respectively, will be frustrated by their limited search, retrieval, and information management tools. As she notes, federal, state and local governments make up a significant customer base for many data broker services.
Unfortunately, as Lamdan points out, the comprehensive and coordinated legal and regulatory reform that would be required to address the issues it has set forth—resolving complex copyright issues, restoring previously strong antitrust doctrines, and closing loopholes in constitutional law—is unlikely. Thus, it also identifies a number of incremental changes that would be beneficial. These include treating data brokers as fiduciaries and, when governments contract for their services, as state actors bound by constitutional obligations.
The book is full of observations about how things should be and ideas about what government could do. But the reader is left wondering why so many bills are introduced but not passed, and so many petitions for inquiry are filed but not acted upon. If several attempts have failed, what are the obstacles to success and what will it take to overcome them? Little attention is paid to these issues.
Scientists Use Big Data to Influence Elections and Predict Riots — Welcome to the 1960s
It also begs the question why the discussion is almost entirely focused on the US. RELX, based in London, and Thomson Reuters, headquartered in Toronto, Canada, are global companies used by researchers around the world. The LexisNexis RELX search engine and the Thomson Reuters Westlaw research service publish the laws and related legal documents of many countries. Lamdan notes in passing that European antitrust laws focus on fairness, while US laws focus on preventing economic harm to consumers. However, there is no vision of how the United States might pursue multilateral action or what the role of international organizations might be in responding to the problems outlined in the book. Is it even possible for the United States to act alone?
A broader view beyond government decisions would also be welcome. In addition to the international Open Access Law Movement that Lamdan highlights, there are organizations that adhere to guidelines and standards (such as the US National Information Standards Organization’s Consensus Principles on User Digital Privacy in Libraries, Publishers, and Software Provider Systems) and cross-industry collaboration (one is the Provider and Library Community of Practice, sponsored by the American Library Association’s Committee on Intellectual Freedom).
Don’t ask if AI is good or just, ask how it changes power
The Institute of Museum and Library Services has provided numerous grants on this topic. These include support for a project called “Library Values and Privacy in US National Digital Strategies: Field Guides, Convenings, and Conversations,” as well as the National Forum on Web Privacy and Analytics. There are enough library initiatives for the 2022 Conference on Electronic Resources and Libraries to include a half-dozen initiatives on the keynote panel, including my own privacy licensing project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York. Philanthropic efforts such as Research4Life and INASP, which help researchers in low- and middle-income countries gain access to the scientific literature, and the activism of new shareholders and students should not be ignored.
Having been involved in efforts to raise awareness of the impact of data brokers for the past decade, I appreciate Lamdan’s encouraging stance that it’s not too late to change course and create a better world. Her rhetoric is powerful, her lyrics are vivid, and her criticism is vigorous. For those unfamiliar with the vast literature on challenges in the data and information arena, this book is a useful compendium. Unfortunately, while Lamdan’s vision of what could and should be inspiring, her call to action fails to offer a clear path forward.
The author declares no competing interests.