When Restricting Data Access to Acceptable Uses, Who Decides What's Acceptable?
By Dennis D. McDonald
In The Backlash Against Sharing Social Media Data Is Bad for Science Joshua New suggests that too-strong restrictions against social media data sharing would be bad were they to hobble socially beneficial uses of shared data, as might be the case with some scientific research.
While I am sympathetic to this argument given my personal interest in promoting scientific research, the devil as always is in the details. For example, in "Can Facebook REALLY be Fixed?" I suggested that giving people control over how their data are used and shared could lead to a disruption of all kinds of commercial as well as noncommercial uses of their data.
This might include individuals restricting access to the use of their data for certain types of scientific research. Imagine, for example, how a "gun rights" advocate in the U.S. might respond were he or she asked the question, "Do you agree to share your personal social media usage data with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) so it can perform public health research concerning gun violence in the United States?"
Fortunately, models for helping people "vet" how their personal data are used already exist. One can envision the formation of independent watchdog groups that monitor how organizations manage and use the personal data they obtain. They would then rate these data-using organizations in terms of criteria such as security, privacy, and a range of social and political acceptability criteria such as environmental health, religious freedom, sexual equality, etc.
One challenge, of course, would be figuring out how to make such rating data available to individuals so they base their decisions about allowable data usage at a granular enough level to make sense. If you have ever worked your way through notifications or permissions lists on services such as Facebook or Apple you also know how complex and tedious such processes can be.
Viewed from the other end -- the researcher -- how useful would a constantly shifting pool of data be were individuals constantly admitting or restricting usages based on their perceptions, sometimes politically motivated, about how their data might be used?
For example, I have long been a passionate moviegoer and amateur movie reviewer. Would I want to allow data on my movie streaming, theater attendance, and review readership to be employed by a religious group looking for ways to control or censor certain types of entertainment based on religious or sexual orientation? For me that would very well be a "slippery slope" type of issue, even if the research need emanated from a traditional academic institution.
Copyright (c) 2018 by Dennis D. McDonald