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Data Is Abundant But Is It Accessible To Researchers?

 |  September 23, 2022

By: Utsav Gandhi (ProMarket)

The Stigler Center, of which ProMarket is a part, recently held its fifth annual conference on antitrust policy and regulation. This included a hands-on discussion about the successes and failures of data access initiatives and the challenges that must be overcome if we are to share data while also protecting user privacy.

“We’ve never had more data than we do today,” said Stigler Research Fellow and conference co-organizer Filippo Lancieri, “yet, [maintaining] data access has never been more fundamental for understanding policy tradeoffs.” Joining Lancieri was a panel of academic researchers: Laura Edelson (New York University), John de Figueiredo (Duke University), and Lior Strahilevitz (UChicago Law), as well as founder of the data journalism outlet The Markup, Julia Angwin.

Edelson, a computer scientist, discussed her Cybersecurity for Democracy project. The project has studied a wide range of online content, from the real world harms of consumer fraud to election disinformation in digital ads. Her lab found anti-democratic content prominent in the 2020 election cycle, and she notes that little has been done to prevent that from happening again. Her team grapples with the question: How do we find this content and make it less prevalent? “With network problems such as these, data is the solution to studying how problematic content manifests itself in practice,” she said. Her lab collects data through user-side crowdsourcing to study platforms rather than users, looking at how behavioral and interest-based ads are targeted. This data is made publicly available for use by other researchers and journalists. The lab aims to help the public better understand issues such as how ad spending changes over time, what ads’ purposes are, and who’s spending money on them.

An overview of the legal frameworks governing privacy, academic research, and scraping was provided by Strahilevitz. Approaches to privacy are very different in Europe and the US, with omnibus legislation in the former and a sectoral approach in the latter. Recent legislation in California has given users the right to delete some data held by tech companies, bringing it closer to the European model. Europe has historically taken a “negative liberties approach to academic research,” said Strahilevitz, and Article 5 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provides institutional safeguards to protect privacy. More recently, the Digital Services Act has moved beyond this “negative” approach and towards a more positive one. The act requires bigger tech companies to open up data; sets up a third party that will examine research proposals; and mandates researchers to publish their findings, making it freely available to the public…