Empowering Academia through Law: Transparency Rights as Enablers for Research in a Black Box Society

Project awarded with NWO-Veni grant

While modern technological developments have enabled the exponential growth of the ‘data society’, academia struggles to obtain research data from the companies managing our data infrastructures. Jef’s project will critically assess the scientific, legal and normative merits and challenges of using transparency rights as an innovative method for obtaining valuable research data.

With a number of upcoming EU legislative initiatives on transparency, this project could not come at a better time. Indeed, academia is suffering from a great paradox in the digital society. The so-called ‘datafication of everything’ results in unprecedented potential and urgency for independent academic inquiry. Yet, academics are increasingly confronted with unwarranted obstacles in accessing the data required to pursue their role as critical knowledge-institution and public watchdog. An important reason behind this, is the increasing centralisation and privatisation of data infrastructures underlying society. The corporations managing our data-infrastructures have strong (legal, technical and economic) disincentives to share the vast amounts of data they control with academia, effectively reinforcing the ‘black box society’ (Pasquale, 2014). As a result, there is an important power asymmetry over access to data and who effectively defines research agendas. This trend has only worsened after recent ‘data scandals’, especially in the wake of Cambridge Analytica. Calls for more transparency from academia and civil society have been largely unsuccessful and efforts to scrutinise data practices in other ways often run into a range of hurdles. At the same time, new and proposed policy documents on algorithmic transparency and open science/data remain abstract.

Against this backdrop, the project will explore how the law – ie disclosure/transparency obligations and access rights – can be used by the academic research community as a tool for breaking through these asymmetries. This may appear counter-intuitive as academics are often confronted with legal arguments to prevent access to data, often for valid reasons such as privacy protection or intellectual property. Yet, these arguments are often abused as blanket restrictions, preventing more balanced solutions. The project will unpack the many issues underlying this tension and evaluate how the respective information asymmetry between academia and big tech can be resolved in light of the European fundamental rights framework.