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About us Policy and strategy A Roadmap to Data Autonomy

Data Autonomy

What is Data Autonomy?

Data should be used in our best interest

In its simplest form, Data Autonomy can be understood as the capacity to make meaningful decisions about our data. As more of our data moves into ‘the cloud’ organisations and inidividuals lose track of where and how data is stored, analysed and shared. Data Autonomy aims to ensure our data is protected, secured, accessible, easily shareable. But it also goes beyond that, to make sure that is used in our best interest, and that we have a significant stake in determing our ‘datafied’ future.

Control about data is in the hand of powerful players for now

At the moment, it is unclear if, when, to whom, and for which purposes data, is -or could be- analysed, stored, and potentially re-shared in various forms. This is not only a question for privacy and data protection, it affects the autonomy of entire universities and higher education in general. Currently, we cannot be sure that our data is being used in our best interest. The control is in the hands of a few very powerful players, who might use our data to increase their power while undermining our personal, academic and collective autonomy.

Why is Data Autonomy important?

Dependency on data-based services and infrastructure

Without data there are no e-mails, no shared agendas, no (video) calls, no notifications, no documents, no assignments, no degree certificates, and no research contents. In other words, without data there is no University in the 21st century.

Unclear how our data is used

At the moment, it is unclear if, when, to whom, and for which purposes data that we produce, store and edit in ‘the cloud’ (e.g. using Google or Microsoft services) is being analysed, and potentially re-shared in various forms (e.g. How many academic articles does it take to train ChatGPT how to write a perfect assignment, or programme the perfect code?).

Involvement in data control

The control over cloud infrastructure is in the hands of a few powerful players, who might use our data to increase their power to the detriment of our personal and collective autonomy. We are not in the loop when it comes to the meaningful decisions regarding our data control, and this needs to change. This does not mean that data processing and storage can only happen on-site, or based on Open Source systems. But we need to know what is going on behind the scenes, and we need to be sure that data is only used according to our values as an academic community.

Initiatives to increase data autonomy

At this moment, several European initiatives have the aim to increase Data Autonomy. In parallel, legislative efforts by the European Union are underway to curb the influence of Big Tech. Nevertheless, Data Autonomy in universities and higher education is being questioned and discussed in the context of public values.

Data Autonomy matters because..

  • Students need safe (digital) spaces for learning and making mistakes, which do not haunt them for the rest of their lives (e.g. when applying for an intership or a job)
  • Researchers need to have tools that are effective and keep them in control of their research data (e.g. without having to share it for further use by big publishers or Big Tech companies to train their AI models)
  • Teachers need tools that support their work while giving them the autonomy to design courses freely (e.g. without having to comply with pre-designed patterns and limited options)
  • Universities need to be able to promote academic freedom and free expression without being factually dependent on one or two providers who can charge for their services whatever they want

By thinking about how to enhance Data Autonomy, we are protecting and promoting our institutional freedom, values such as human dignity, as well as the interests of students, employees and our partners.

Why should we act?

The UG has too little control over our data

We can not make decisions about our data on an individual and organizational level alone. Under current circumstances, the UG has only little control over data that is kept in private data centers. The companies that offer cloud storage services are not necessarily aligned with European public values and relevant laws such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), or other upcoming legislative frameworks such as the Digital Markets Act, or the EU AI Act

Risk of profiling of the university, faculties, research groups, students and staff in general

At the same time there is the risk that all of us are being profiled and surveilled. This does not necessarily have to happen on an individual level to have a profound impact on our everyday lives.

For instance, the metadata of students (e.g. who is in contact with whom, how frequently, at which times) and staff might be used for commercial purposes and to profile entire faculties or departments. It is concerning that the data of three-quarters of all Dutch students is stored at data centers which are controlled by private companies which are primarily interested in short-term economic goals.. We should also consider the possibility of data access being denied (e.g. for reasons of national security of countries such as the United States or China), meaning we could lose all our data.

Academic freedom in the digital age needs data infrastructure

The dependency on Big Tech companies influences teaching and research profoundly.. Academic freedom will be restricted if we do not have a significant stake as an institution and sector. The ‘value’ of our data is being ‘exploited’ by others, while we do not deserve our fair share.

Vendor lock-in

Moreover, the current tendency to store (personal) data in remote/unknown cloud storage infrastructures with little control might result in “vendor lock-in". Once there is no easy exit strategy or no viable alternative, the costs for the use of and access to this infrastructure might increase beyond expectation. There were first signs of this as Universities excited the most severe period of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What does Data Autonomy mean for the UG?

Respect, protect and promote academic freedom in the digital age

Before making choices, we need to understand our needs as a community, and that is what we are doing with this initiative. Together, we work towards a roadmap to promote Data Autonomy, which should result in a strategy that enables the UG to respect, protect and promote academic freedom in the digital age.

Last modified:02 June 2023 1.54 p.m.
View this page in: Nederlands