polypoly polyVerse
2022-08-25

We interviewed Lorrayne Porciuncula who is director of the Data & Jurisdiction Program of the Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network. Her professional and academic experience has been focused on issues around data, Internet governance, infrastructure regulation, and communication policy. Prior to joining the Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network, she worked at the OECD (2014–2020) as the Strategic Advisor for Digital Economy Policy, coordinating issues related to data governance, artificial intelligence, and blockchain.

Tell me a little about yourself. What is your core expertise?

I'm an internationalist and economist. I’ve worked in telecommunications, regulation policy, and digital transformation policy and analysis. I come from an experience in different international organisations. I worked at the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) and also at the OECD (Organisation for Economic and Cooperative Development) as a strategic advisor on digital issues. I’ve worked with several countries and regions, advising policy makers and regulators on issues concerning infrastructure, connectivity, and data governance. My core expertise is in policy and economic analysis in a digital economy overall.

Since 2020, I have been working at the Internet Jurisdiction Policy Network (I&JPN), an organisation that works at the intersection of the national jurisdictions and the international nature of the internet, where I have joined to work on data governance.

I lead the Datasphere Initiative, a separate organization incubated at I&JPN and launched in April 2022; with the mission of catalyzing agile governance frameworks to responsibly unlock the value of data for all, with a vision of having a collaboratively governed datasphere. I'm also an affiliate with the Berkman-Klein Center at Harvard University, where I've been researching issues related to data governance.

As you were talking about the data governance piece, it struck me that this has an international dimension. Have you always been interested in international affairs, what's going on around the world, or did it come through your academic interests?

Yes, because I studied international relations I'm an internationalist. My entire academic experience has been in international issues. And what's different – I think from my past – is that since the very start, I was interested in technology at a time where it wasn't such a prevalent topic within international affairs. But for me, the trigger has always been trying to bridge international issues with economic development and technology. At the time, I was very much inspired by what was happening around the Arab Spring and by the Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen and the notion that technology can catalyze and really unlock capabilities on individual, social, and economic development. I was interested on the role that the internet played in giving people's voices in the context where there was an authoritarian regime. And I know that I was a part of a moment of tech euphoria. Everyone was thinking that the internet was going to solve everyone's problems. This has certainly matured since. We certainly need to mitigate the risks, be prepared for the negative externalities that it has. But overall, I think what technology has brought can be really positive and has the potential to connect people. So yeah, it's always been from an international angle. My experience in international organizations have allowed me to consider at least two very complementary analytical perspectives: either looking at one specific topic and evaluating horizontally to understand what's happening across different countries; or taking one country and doing a deep dive to understand telecommunications policies, for example. The first, provides you with a good international benchmarking and the latter is extremely useful because usually the devil is in the details on how things work, and why they don’t. So I think those expert analysis need to go together, both in terms of the local or regional perspective and creating an international perspective to look at the overall picture. Particularly because sometimes national policy makers lose sight of the big picture and overall trends since they tend to concentrate their time on day-to-day problems. At the same time, trying to understand what are the micro-incentives that are catalyzing macro-behaviors; they are really important in that sense as well. And that has a lot to do with the concept that we have been exploring with the Datasphere. For example, in terms of understanding the Datasphere as a complex adaptive system with emergent behavior where the small parts can have a considerable impact on the overall outcome of the system and where micro-incentives and macro-behaviors do not necessarily align. So you have the unpredictable kind of effects of different individual agents, which makes it very, very difficult for you to govern and try to deal with it from a policy point of view. Ultimately, that's what I'm trying to do right now. How can we translate some of the concerns from practitioners and from local people who are in the field trying to come up with concrete solutions to data challenges, to policymakers that are trying to develop norms around some of those behaviors, both at a national and international level? It requires a different way of thinking, a different way of doing policy, a different way of doing consultations and analysis of those issues. So I'm trying to build on my experience and bring together additional tools to see how we can address this.

As you were speaking it struck me that you must have grown up with the internet. I think it makes people of your generation de facto internationalists, or at least having the opportunity for global exposure. Like for me, I didn't have a computer as a child. I grew up with a television where you had to get up and walk across the room to change the channel. I came to the internet not quite mid-life, but well into being an adult. So it's not anything that I grew up with, although for some reason I've been very interested in international relations – I don't know why – but it just seems that the internet really facilitated a sort of flattening of the Earth in the sense that you have access to a much broader experience.

I think for me it’s even more so the case. Because, I mean, I grew up with being able to experience the internet already, but it wasn't as obvious as with kids that have grown up with fiber and to the speeds and platforms that we have now. I also think I had a special relationship with technology and the internet growing up because my father, who is an electric engineers, had one of the first internet service providers in Brasilia where I come from. So I remember from a young age going to the cold server rooms and that's a very present memory in my mind. So technology was something that I had at home in terms of having someone who was very curious and was deeply attracted to innovations. That has definitely informed how I see the world and my career choice, not a technologist, but as someone that looks into the policy and economics dimensions around those phenomena.

You're an international policy hacker! Okay, what, in your opinion is the main problem with the current data economy, or it could be more than one. Whatever comes to mind.

For me, there are several. But there's a key problem of trust in the data economy which contaminates other different relations that we have. Trust is very important when we are dealing with any kind of economy and transaction. You need to have a certain level of information sharing and we're told to respond to asymmetric information. And right now we have a problem of trust, but also with large assymetries between different actors. Corporate actors hold a lot of market power on one hand, and smaller actors that are somehow locked in into certain services with bigger actors. And this also happens with individuals themselves and in governments, that I feel that they don't have control over the direction and the trajectory that we're moving towards. Because all of those stakeholders are trying to achieve different policy objectives, a multitude of concerns around fairness emerge, around inclusion, of participation, of agency, of self-determination, and security. In the meantime, activists try to participate in the process and have a voice, but typically get very little space for decision-making in a way that is inclusive and effective. Ultimately, one of the biggest issues is the fact that although the data economy offers so many opportunities, there is still a considerable lack of trust; which then creates a vicious circle where by not having trust, we're not sharing enough data where we should be sharing to create more social and economic value. Then at the same time, not sharing information creates more mistrust in the ecosystem. We need the data economy to solve our global challenges, to think about climate change or the pandemics; we necessarily need to be sharing information with each other and talking to each other and trying to develop solutions that are evidence-based. So for me, the current state of the data economy is not conducive to that.

What motivates you to help solve this problem, did anything in particular trigger your interest?

Throughout my career I've seen different countries – and policymakers and stakeholders – concerned about the same issues, be it in Myannmar, Rwanda, Ecuador, Latvia, in the US or France. There is a sense of lack of power, a lack of clarity, of understanding what you're supposed to be doing. And with regard to policy makers, of just being reactive to what's being put in front of them. Maybe it’s because they’re responding to unilateral actions from other governments and they say, well, we need to copy and have the same legislation. Possibly they’re responding to actions from big companies and impose their own unilateral actions. And in being around those different tables within regional and international fora around the world, I realize that sometimes we were in the same room and weren't even speaking the same language. We weren't using the same words. I like a quote by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – a Colombian author – who wrote One Hundred Years Of Solitude. The first phrase of the book says, “The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point", and I think that we are in a phase like that within the data economy. People are pointing at things and being reactive and not really thinking and naming what we mean. I see the example of so many different countries enacting regulations without actually going through a consultative process to understand what we are trying to get out of this. What does the data economy mean to us? And for me – stumbling upon the concept of the Datasphere – there was a moment of inspiration, a reflection of relations as complex as the atmosphere or the lithosphere, which comes from this common place. But thinking about the Datasphere – in a way which is more holistic – was a moment where I thought, that's the narrative that we're missing. Trying to understand it as a common space, as a place that has millions and millions of actors, of norms, of data sets stored, and being shared, and processed. And if you don't understand it from a systems level, we're never going to be able to address it in a way that scratches the surface of what we need to be doing with it. And what we're trying to do is to come up with a narrative, and a concept, and a framework that invites people to think about the data economy and the Datasphere in a different way. And for me, that going from pointing at things to naming them … that's very powerful.

Wow, very interesting. What is the best way to motivate every day people to join the movement for a fair data economy?

I think that the best way to motivate people is by trying to listen to them and understand what their concerns are. Because ultimately the data economy touches on everyone's lives, in their social relations, in their professional relations, and in their personal relations as well. And so why should they care? What the concerns are, what are they tired of, what do they feel like they have no say in, and how would they be interested in participating this if they had a chance? I think the best way of motivating people to take part in a fair data economy comes from giving them the space to learn by doing. Like a crowdsourcing movement inviting people to try to understand what the value of participating in the process is. For me, it's about unlocking that value to each and every person. A lot of it comes from trying to understand what works and what doesn’t, such as by trying to unveil shortcomings from current policies and regulations and how they can be enhanced. In the case of addressing privacy concerns, for examples, we know that a consent-based approach is not working well because people feel overwhelmed with the amount of terms of service that they need to supposedly read and go through the details. And in that sense, I find that technology can play an interesting role, or different businesses models or intermediary processes as well. Privacy-enhancing technologies show a lot of potential. Data fiduciaries too, for example, can play a role in being that interface for people. For me, understanding how we motivate people relies on looking at the evidence and trying to understand what hasn't worked in the past as well, or what's not working now; being very upfront and transparent about it; trying to come up with different strategies and be more agile on the way that we respond to them. And that also has to do on how we do legislation today. It’s very linear – the way that we develop it – and I think that law makers have a lot to learn about how software is developed, in terms of having that different versions, and having an iterative process where you test and see what works and doesn't work. So if we create a space for experimentation where we see what's working, what isn't, maybe we'll be able to motivate not only individuals to feel that they have a voice in influencing this process, but also smaller companies, technologists, and academics. And right now, I feel as though everyone is dissociated from the process because it seems like it's completely out of their control; so people don't care about it; they just reject or accept all of it because they don’t think it will make a difference. And that's how you get people to disengage, when they feel like their vote, their say doesn't count.

Right. I was thinking towards the tail end of your comments that when I go to a website, I usually accept cookies just to get it out of the way, like I'm done. I just want to read the webpage.

Exactly, and you're really tech savvy and I am as well, and I still don't have the patience to go through all of it, and end up rejecting all for simplicity. And so, is this sustainable? The consent-based process is simply not working for the objective that it was meant to be. When you read the GDPR, and the fact it was supposed to be so simple and readable, the user was supposed to make an informed decision. It's not what is happening. People are just blindly clicking whatever button is easier so they can read the content. We need to come up with better solutions.

… we need to lower the bar, because right now, it's like reading the fine print of a second mortgage, or iTunes Terms of Service. It’s like, who is a lawyer? Who's got the time for this?

No one has the time. Even drawing on my experience from telecom and consumer protection and telecommunication services, when I subscribe to a telecommunications contract with an operator, I don't read through the fine lines of the contract. There is a template for contracts that is regulated by the telecommunications authority, and the consumer protection arm of that authority, in the country that has clauses that cannot be included because they’re considered abusive; there are processes for you to resort to if there's been any problems with the contract itself. But there are also authorities that are capable of actually responding to issues that you may have with your operator. Right now, we have a hyper-burden on the individual level in terms of rejecting each one of the clauses, and on the other hand, you simply do not have the capacity to implement the regulations that we now have from a state level. Because regulators are under-funded and under-staffed, they still try to come up with the processes and procedures to address concerns and requests related to personal data protection. It is problematic when regulations end up being detached from reality, not only from companies, but from individuals and government agencies themselves. I think that we need to try to understand what's working and what isn't, and how to improve it, because it's not achieving the policy objectives that I think he had set out for it to do.

Okay, here are the softball questions; I'm just gonna lob two across. How did you become aware of polypoly? And why do you think polypoly is part of the solution?

I became aware of polypoly before we were actually introduced. I read about it when I was looking into alternative governance solutions to data. I think it was in a Mozilla research paper where they reviewed alternatives, from data pools to data collectives, and data cooperatives. And I had also heard of polypoly in terms of being an alternative to, from what I understand, either a very corporate or very individual approach to how to address data. I find it very interesting as an approach to move beyond the dichotomy that is put around the data economy of ownership. I think the history and the basis of cooperatives, especially in Europe, is one that is very rich in terms of having a more common approach to resources, to value that is created to the notion of ownership in itself as well, which is both shared but owned at the same time. You have this duality between those two understandings of ownership, and I find it to be a necessary disruption to the data economy right now. And in a way to think about an alternative of how we deal with data, how data is valued, how we store data. I think it's the start of a journey that will only continue to be more sophisticated from here to the future; a way for us to recreate the narratives around ownership and cooperatives, and what it means around the notion of localisation of cooperatives as well. I would love to see cooperatives that are not only based on a regional approach, but also having a global footprint. So I think we’re only at the start and trying to learn what works and what doesn't, and I find polypoly to be a very important step in the right direction; experimenting with alternative business models – and alternative narratives as well – for a new data economy.

Cool. And final question. Each of our advisors has a particular skill set, given your expertise. How would you advise polypoly to move forward?

That's a very good question. I think, trying to build on my expertise, I believe in listening to people and building conclusions based on evidence. So as an individual and as a professional, I'm not afraid of changing gears and changing my initial conceptions, if I'm confronted with a factor that made me change my mind. My advice would be to continue exploring the solutions and the narratives that are available. I do think that polypoly is only scratching the surface of what it can do, and what it can bring as an inspiration, not only to individuals and companies, but also to the way that policies and regulations are made on a global level. So for me, I would advise polypoly to be open to different perspectives, to listen even to people who don't believe that it's a good solution; to understand why they don't believe it's a good solution; and be comfortable with the contradictory. Because I know that this helps me a lot as someone who's worked in multilateral organisations; to having my analysis confronted by multiple views from different governments and experts and stakeholders from the technical, social, and academic sectors, it was always very enriching. There's always a point where you can try to make sense of that and say, to see a trend, Ian opportunity or a point of that we need to reflect further. And it's okay from what I have learned in my own experience to not know the answer yet. It's okay to say that you don't know that you're exploring, and that's one of the biggest lessons that I received instead of just trying to shy away or hide the fact that there might be contradictory evidence, or experiences that point to completely different directions. You expose it, you say, this experience shows this, but this experience shows that, and this is what we have to live with because it's all right. The world is a complex thing, and so I think it's very important for us to get our hands dirty and be able to say, the evidence is still fuzzy, or this is why I didn't work, or this is why it's working. Let's try to figure it out. Sometimes we'll learn more from failure than from success. And for me, that's the core, trying to move forward based on evidence and based in a broad consultation, and I think that's paramount.