Although there are data out there that could be used for the benefit of the public at large, they are not in the hands of public authorities, but those of private entities: cellphone network operators, credit card companies, and the tech giants of the new economy, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. With the exception of a few isolated and self-proclaimed initiatives in the field of “data philanthropy”, these companies have historically been reluctant to share their data for the benefit of all. How can we explain to citizens around the world that we can’t use their data — which these companies have been aggressively gathering over the years — to help them, especially in emergency situations? […] This article identifies the main challenges of sharing privately held data for public-interest purposes, and proposes a draft research agenda for academics. European Journal of Risk Regulation, 2018

3 questions to Alberto Alemanno, professor of law at HEC.

Portrait d'alberto alemanno professeur de droit à HEC Paris
Professor of Law at HEC Paris, he holds the Jean Monnet Chair in European Union Law, conferred by the European Commission.

What is the main lesson to be drawn from your research?

It highlights that we could save and improve lives by using the data collected by companies, as well as what we are lacking to make that happen. Indeed, there is a huge mass of data available, but it does not belong to us. How can companies that have obtained data for commercial purposes be encouraged to share those data with public authorities? Up to now, such data have been aggregated to target individuals and sell them products and services. To use them for different purposes would first require some technical work. But who will pay for that data processing? Some local authorities in Europe pay telephone carriers for access to anonymous data that allows them to detect traffic jams in real time. But is that principle of financial compensation wholly — or even somewhat — legitimate? The other option would be to use the law to oblige companies such as Google or Facebook to share that information — in certain emergency situations, for instance. We can also envision public-private partnerships.

Can you give us some real-world examples?

In addition to emergency situations (natural disasters, terrorist attacks, etc.), the data could be useful for guiding public policies. For example, when authorities introduce new food labeling, they do not know whether the way the information is presented will produce the expected impact on the population. They must rely on statistics derived from individuals’ statements, rather than their actual behavior. To give another example: NGOs say that many deaths could have been prevented during the Zika epidemic in Africa if Facebook and Google had shared their data. That information can save lives and public money. Which raises an important ethical issue: who should be held responsible for such a failure to act?

What direction will your work take from here?

The European Commission has convened a group of 20 experts from business and civil society. As rapporteur, I must draft the guidelines for the governance of commercial data sharing for public-interest purposes. I intend to continue my research where it will be useful and, if necessary, conduct practical experiments.