Proposed EU Data Laws Leave Researchers Out In The Cold

By Nic Fleming, Bristol, UK

Some scientists say the European Commission’s Data Act would favour businesses in its aim to expand access rights to big data, and fear that publicly funded science will suffer.

The amount of information humans and their machines are generating is growing exponentially. It’s expected that the amount of data created, captured and replicated across the world annually will have increased from 33 zettabytes (or 33 trillion gigabytes) in 2018 to 221 zettabytes by 2026.

There is huge potential for this information to drive innovation and economic growth, but most of it is going to waste, say European Union legislators, because companies keep it closely guarded and it ends up largely unused. The European Data Act, proposed in 2022, seeks to free up some of this data, giving consumers, businesses and public-sector bodies access rights.

Researchers, however, say that the proposed act fails to extend such rights to them, and is a missed opportunity to accelerate innovation in key areas, such as climate change, public health and the countering of misinformation. Some see it as the latest example of publicly funded researchers being left behind in the race to make the most of big data.

“There is a wall between researchers and a lot of data that they could use to carry out important research in the public interest, either because companies prevent them from accessing it, or they charge very high prices for it,” says Julien Chicot, a senior policy officer at the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities in Brussels, a network of 21 research-led institutions. “The proposed Data Act is disappointing because it enables data sharing between businesses, but largely fails to do so for research purposes,” he says.

In 2020, the European Commission published a data strategy to increase the flow of data across sectors in member states. The aims included creating wealth, giving people greater control over their data and fostering trust for companies. The proposed Data Act is a key part of that strategy. The commission’s proposals apply to devices and machines that gather data related to their performance, use and environment, and that can communicate the data through the Internet or by other means. This includes connected objects that are part of the Internet of Things (IoT), such as smart home appliances, connected vehicles and smart manufacturing systems. Products such as smart phones, cameras and personal computers are outside the scope of the proposals, as are ‘value added’ insights derived through software processing.

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