Data as a Fair Trade Product

The range of fair trade products has been growing for years. From coffee to clothing to smartphones, more and more consumers are rethinking their consumption. So far, the digital services sector has been largely excluded from this. Companies need a lot of data for optimization, personalization and as a commodity on a data market. Users are concerned about their privacy, are reluctant to pay, but at the same time actively produce the data. The research project "Fair digital services. Co-evaluation in the design of data-economic business models" at the Kassel University.

Bild: Niek Verlaan

The basic idea of the project is to develop a multidimensional concept of data-economic fairness. It is intended to be broadly applicable in the design of new business models for digital services. "In this context, we pay attention to both the side of companies and that of consumers," emphasizes Prof. Dr. Jörn Lamla, head of the Department of Sociological Theory and coordinator of the collaborative project. To a certain extent, a fair balance can be achieved by charging for data. For example, apps could deliberately offer a paid service. In return, as little data as necessary would be stored and no data would be passed on to third parties.

"However, there are also values associated with digital data processing that cannot be offset with money," says Prof. Lamla. "Violation of the fundamental right to privacy, discrimination by algorithms or long-term side effects for democracy, the environment and society are typically among them. Compensation by offsetting can therefore only be a form of co-evaluation." That's why two other forms are also being worked on. One is to help new design concepts fairly address the various concerns. Consumers often face the problem of not knowing what data is stored by an app and with what goals it is processed. Technical precautions in the sense of the "privacy by design" approach and clearer representations and evaluations should provide more protection and transparency here. On the other hand, the idea of a digital fairness culture is to be established, where digital services make use of social media and platform architectures for data production. The aim is to strengthen the relationship of trust between all those involved and affected by it.

Fair business models not only create a balance of interests between companies and users. In the long term, Prof. Lamla also sees potential for the development of a European path for the data economy. This relies increasingly on the democratic negotiation of value conflicts: "We currently have two major models of the data economy. On one side is the U.S., where a few companies have control over all data. On the other is China, where the state intervenes in the lives of its citizens through data control. We want to explore a third way for a fair and responsible data economy."

In this context, the abandonment of data processing is just as problematic as the comprehensive and uncontrolled recording and influencing of private lifestyles. For Prof. Lamla, restrictive data protection cannot be an end in itself, but it can be a legitimate (pressure) tool for the transition to a fair data economy. "In order to increase the opportunities and gains of digitization for all sides, the interaction of different actors, including self-learning information technology, must ultimately be rethought and redesigned so that plural values can coexist well within it." To this end, he said, it is necessary to pave the way for new business models.

To achieve this, the project members come from both academia and practice. In addition to the Department of Sociological Theory, at the University of Kassel these are the Knowledge Processing and Gender/Diversity departments of the Department of Electrical Engineering/Computer Science. In addition, there is the Institute of Business Informatics and New Media at LMU Munich as well as two practical partners, also from Munich, the company BurdaForward and from Berlin the association Institute for Technology and Journalism, ITuJ e.V. for short.

The project is scheduled to run for three years. It is being funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research with a good 1.5 million euros, of which just over 1 million euros will go to those involved at the Kassel University.


Prof. Dr. Jörn Lamla
Kassel University
Department 05 Social Sciences
Department of Sociological Theory
Phone: +49-561 804-2185
E-Mail: lamla[at]uni-kassel[dot]de

Sebastian Mense
Kassel University
Press and Public Relations
Phone: +49 561 804 -1961
E-mail: presse[at]uni-kassel[dot]de