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An employee walks past a line of servers in a communication room for national and international data in New Delhi, India, on March 17, 2023.Manish Swarup/The Associated Press

Kean Birch is director of the Institute for Technoscience and Society at York University.

Our personal data are an important asset for business, especially Big Tech. But for these firms, privacy doesn’t mean what we generally think it means. Big Tech considers privacy to be a question of cybersecurity and confidentiality, where they can do whatever they like with our data as long as there are no data breaches.

These firms have deep access to our data, and they are making a lot of money exploiting it. We probably can’t do anything about the former, given that handing over data is inherent in all our Internet-based conveniences. But we can do something about how the money-making part is governed.

We need to start treating our personal data as a collective and not private asset: It’s aggregated from Canadian citizens and only has value as a result of its social and relational nature. The more data a business has, the more value it generates for them, and the more they can make useful inferences from it about all of our individual preferences and behaviours, whether or not we agreed to let them collect and analyze our specific data. Businesses can infer a lot about us from other people’s data.

We should therefore manage and govern our personal data as a collective asset, like we do with natural resources such as oil. We should have a say in how our data are used and we should derive a share of the ever-growing revenues generated from it.

As others have suggested, it makes a lot of sense to establish a publicly-controlled data governance entity, like the proposed Ontario Data Authority. Our federal and provincial governments should go even further and frame this sort of public agency as a sovereign data fund akin to the resource funds established by other countries to generate revenues from their natural resource endowments.

Norway’s Oil Fund is a good example of the benefits that a sovereign data fund could bring to Canada. Only established in 1990, the fund currently represents more than $2-trillion in assets. It receives billions every year from taxes, fees and a government ownership share of Norwegian oil fields. It invests in a range of other assets in other countries. and is designed specifically to make Norway more resilient to changing oil prices and other macroeconomic shocks.

We could treat our digital data the same way the Norwegians, and many others, treat oil and gas. Fossil fuels were the resource base of 20th-century economies, and data are the resource base of the 21st century. With our data sovereign wealth fund, Canada would require firms that want access to our data to pay into it, while it could also provide some oversight as to how our data are used. It would mean that every time you watch an ad, you’d effectively be getting paid.

Now is a good time to start thinking and planning to act on this idea. The UN, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and European Commission are working together to revise the treatment of digital data in our national accounts by updating an esoteric accounting framework called the System of National Accounts.

The SNA is a set of long-standing national accounting standards developed by the UN Statistical Office that provides the basis for estimating national gross domestic product and other economic indicators. Experts involved in the current revision process – who come from around the world – have been trying to work out how to integrate digital data and its economic value into these economic indicators.

These national accounting experts consider data to be an important asset in our increasingly technoscientific economies: data underpin areas such as online advertising, digital products, software and a host of new technology markets, including artificial intelligence and the metaverse. To understand how data are turned into assets and what value they have requires unpacking the assetization process, including the governance of something as an asset.

One of the major issues resulting from these national accounting changes will be the question of who does and who should benefit from this shift in our treatment of data. Currently, there is no transparency on this issue as data do not have to be recorded on corporate balance sheets. So the SNA process will, in some ways, force firms and governments to become clearer about where data sits and who controls access to it.

The outcome of this process offers Canada an important opportunity to change the way we understand and govern data, so that we can be the ones to benefit and to control its use.

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