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Inquiry into data use asks the wrong questions

  • 06 October 2016


In the wake of #CensusFail and the Senate inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 Census, it is worth noting another inquiry is underway: the Productivity Commission was charged in March to inquire into 'data availability and use'.

It will investigate the 'costs and benefits of making more datasets available; examine options for data collection, sharing and release; identify how consumers can benefit from access to data; and consider how to preserve individual privacy and control over data use'.

It holds important implications for Australians because our personal information is collected and stored by business and government in nearly all our daily interactions.

The terms of reference do however make a number of assumptions, making it look very much as though it will find that the benefits of making data available outweigh the costs. And those costs are likely to be our privacy.

The first assumption is that data is a valuable product. Certainly, data is now a commodity. But framing the inquiry around the costs and benefits of making more data available assumes that data is necessarily good, and it is economically important as a product on the open market.

The second assumption is that data should move freely. In other words, where one agency or firm holds data, that data should be available to other agencies and firms, who can draw on this information to offer better products or services for consumers.

The flipside is that there is a cost associated with constraining data, and not sharing it freely. The argument seems to be that consumers will get inferior and perhaps more expensive products and services if agencies and firms do not have sufficient access to data to inform their operations.

The third premise underpinning the terms of reference is that all data are equal. The inquiry focuses not only on private sector data (such as spending habits, or what people search for on the internet), but also on government data about citizens (income, health, education data, for example).


"My caution arises from the fundamental importance of privacy to a civil society. In this inquiry however, privacy concerns seem an afterthought following the premise of data as a product."


The inquiry is therefore to analyse the commodification of the data that we leave behind as consumers (sometimes called 'metadata') as well as the information we are required to give over to government. The idea of commodification of data effectively involves us as consumers and as citizens becoming