Covid-19 and the 'Tragedy of the Digital Commons'

Covid-19 and the 'Tragedy of the Digital Commons'

Digital commons
Images: Pexels
The Covid 19 crisis has shone a spotlight on a whole range of issues. Including how we view, and use, shared resources. And this applies as much in the digital space, nowadays, as any other type of environment.


The 'Tragedy of the Commons'

Garrett Hardin argued that individuals will “always act in their own self-interest - so the collective effect is to use up, or destroy, a resource”. And he cited the economist William Forster Lloyd’s example of a common pasture in his original theory,


This behavioural trait was apparent at the start of the pandemic, when stocks of essential supplies disappeared from shelves. But the same reasoning has been applied to many ‘common resources’, in the truest sense of the term. It’s often used in debates around sustainability and climate change, these days, for example.


The Role of Personal Data

Personal data is part of a common resource too - as it drives the global economy and public policy making. It can exist in several states, in multiple storage sites, and be subjected to complex algorithms by governments or global corporations. 


The ‘digital commons’ is also increasingly important. And has the potential to democratise and empower people via shared knowledge and opportunities.


But, as we know, there is clear potential for the destruction and exploitation of this commons, if the right controls are not in place.  Indeed, we have grounds to believe this is already happening - even to the point of distorting democratic processes. And our existing legal frameworks are struggling to adapt to these modern day complexities.


The Covid 19 pandemic

Our personal data has become even more valuable during the current pandemic. And the Covid-19 crisis has transformed the digital landscape. Even information like your location and body temperature is useful to the community, as it helps in the fight to combat the virus.


But how should we handle this?


Hardin dismissed giving states the power to manage the commons, because of the potential danger to personal liberty. And this issue has been of considerable concern recently, particularly in countries like South Korea and China. 


Amnesty International have also raised issues of privacy and human rights around data management in places including Kuwait and Bahrain. So, Hardin’s observation about technological solutions being '‘mutually agreed upon systems of regulation based on coercion'’ could be seen as particularly pertinent here.


Girl using laptop wearing mask


Google/Apple APIs

Other countries, however, have developed tracing apps (to which huge numbers of people have signed up) which access their personal data, not for corporate profit or executive power, but with the sole view of isolating infected persons from the rest of the population. 


Many of these apps incorporate the Google/Apple APIs, which use a decentralised model to warn a user if a Covid positive person is within a few feet of their phone for more than a few minutes. 


Crucially, these APIs do not track the user’s absolute location, but only register the relative position of one phone to another. This gives power to the user to decide what action to take - and when.  The approach has proved successful in countries like Germany and Australia, which have experienced relatively low infection rates. 


The UK Government

The UK government’s contractor, in contrast, designed an app which stores data centrally including the smartphone’s absolute location. Experts predicted both technical and legal problems with this approach and, indeed, nothing has been heard of the UK’s app since its trial on the Isle of Wight some weeks ago. 


Clearly, the Google/Apple APIs have their own issues. And not everyone owns or is able to use a smartphone. The APIs themselves are ‘black boxes’ too, in effect - so what exactly Google and Apple are doing inside them is largely unknown. 



Here we have what, in principle, looks like a technical solution to mass contact tracing - which protects the data commons without coercion. This proves we can avoid the outcome of Hardin’s tragic parable - when we act collectively, with the right controls.


It also reminds us how crucial it is, as citizens, to value our personal data, and the information we have access to.


Perhaps most importantly, just as with other issues this pandemic has highlighted, it questions the type of society we want to live in.