© FT Montage
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

This article is from today’s FT Opinion email. Sign up to receive a daily digest of the big issues straight to your inbox.

Each time you swipe that social media app on your smartphone, you're generating a data set that a machine-learning program will work out how to sell advertising against. But how should we view these data?

One conception — favoured in Silicon Valley — is that user data are capital created and owned by the big tech companies. But, John Thornhill points out in his column this week, there is a competing interpretation. What if those data are not the byproduct of leisure but the product of labour? If that’s right, then digital data are “user-generated possessions that should primarily benefit their owners”.

It’s one thing, John writes, to recognise that at a conceptual level. But in order to nudge the data economy in a different direction, a number of things have to happen: Big Tech should not be allowed to squash new market entrants and so stifle innovation; governments need to overhaul their competition policy; and we, the hitherto passive consumers, need to develop something akin to what Marxists used to call “class consciousness”.

Social media users of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your targeted ads!

Beijing business
Theresa May returned from her China trip last week touting £9bn worth of business for British companies. But, writes Jingzhou Tao, the UK prime minister shouldn’t assume that non-binding agreements arrived at in Beijing will eventually lead to actual deals and real investment. China often drags its feet on commitments made when foreign leaders visit.

Planning palaver
Indian authorities have cracked down on “unauthorised” businesses using premises not originally earmarked for commercial use. However, notes Amy Kazmin, a “master plan” for the redevelopment of New Delhi is colliding with the messy reality of urban growth.

Eccentricity fatigue
“When does Britain’s tolerance of eccentricity cross from generous trait to national Achilles heel,” asks Janan Ganesh. That is the question raised by the seriousness with which some are treating Jacob Rees-Mogg’s claim on the leadership of the Conservative party. The Tory backbencher has led the Brexiter charge against institutions Conservatives could once be relied upon to defend to the last. Mr Rees-Mogg’s ascent is a symptom of his party’s atrophy, Janan argues. The Tories are so hollowed out and drained of talent that “almost anyone can aspire to lead [them]”.

Best of the rest

A special tax to save the struggling NHS won’t work. Here’s why — Simon Jenkins in The Guardian

Our hackable political future — Henry J Farrell and Rick Perlstein in The New York Times

Setting new objectives for businesses is not enough; we need performance indicators to match — Bernard Colasse in Le Monde (in French)

Corbyn’s “municipal socialism” offers a welcome new approach on housing — but will it be enough? — Owen Hatherley in Prospect

When will tech disrupt higher education? — Kenneth Rogoff for Project Syndicate

What you’ve been saying

Pneumonia is the single biggest killer of children in world's poorest countries— letter from Kevin Watkins and others in response to Why some killer diseases are overlooked

Bacterial childhood pneumonia can be prevented through vaccination, yet millions of the most vulnerable children are un-immunised. With early and accurate diagnosis most case can be treated with simple antibiotics, yet two children will die from the disease in the minute it takes to read this letter. Despite the relentless tide of fatalities, most governments are failing to prioritise pneumonia prevention and treatment. Meanwhile, aid donors, the UN, the World Bank and other international development actors continue to treat pneumonia, the world’s most lethal killer of children, as a sideshow. Responsibility for changing [this] rests overwhelmingly with governments in developing countries.

Comment by Paul A Myers on The American way of healthcare

One truism that can be said of the American healthcare system is that it is a product — a logical product — of the American political system, which is structurally oriented towards fractured and ineffective management of large social welfare programs that require management skills beyond cutting a check (i.e., Social Security). The overall environment favors gaming the system through special-interest politics. The combined healthcare reimbursement systems of the private health insurance network and Medicare is exceedingly generous with two consequences: the cornucopia of money does encourage a lot of healthcare innovation since innovation is richly rewarded by the reimbursements system, and there are a lot of participants making vast amounts of money — far beyond what a normally functioning marketplace would provide. Reforming this complex is nigh impossible.

Protectionist policies and the post-1945 order— letter from Thomas Meaney in response to America rejects the world it made

Gideon Rachman wants to defend what he calls the “global rules-based order” from what he calls President Donald Trump’s “assault” on it. The main evidence he supplies for this “assault” is that the Trump administration has backed out of a variety of free-trade deals. But protectionist policies were integral to the post-1945 liberal international world order that Mr Rachman claims to cherish. Jacob Viner, one of the godfathers of the Chicago School of Economics, said during the 1947 GATT negotiations: “There are few free traders in the present-day world, no one pays any attention to their views, and no person in authority anywhere advocates free trade.” Moreover, some of the trade deals the Trump administration has rejected were also rejected by European social democrats, albeit on different grounds.Mr Rachman says that “whatever Mr Trump says, the US gains security and political advantages from playing the role of ‘world policeman’ ”. But surely the political advantages at least can no longer be taken for granted, especially when a significant portion of the American electorate was sceptical enough of the gains that it went to the trouble of electing Mr Trump.

Today’s opinion

Flu risks apply pressure on science for a universal vaccine
Scientists say the only way to stop pandemics is to develop a jab for everyone

Instant Insight: Lloyds’ ban on credit card purchases of bitcoin makes sense
The move from the UK lender helps as part of its role in fraud prevention

Progress is pending on China investment deals
Securing non-binding agreements is one thing. Actually doing business quite another

Free Lunch: Make do and mend in the EU
It can be better to use existing institutions than to create new ones

Social media users of the world unite!
Might our data be better viewed as labour rather than capital?

Markets Insight: Don’t forget there’s good news behind higher bond yields
Despite a risk of a disorderly sell-off, yields are rising because of faster growth and inflation

Delhi shop chaos reflects hazards of doing business in India
A blueprint for the city has collided with the messy reality of urban growth

How Guyana can avoid the curse of oil
The commodity can bring both wealth and trouble and it is easy to think of countries that have been damaged by its discovery

A Good Time to be a Girl, by Helena Morrissey
A call to action from the City high flyer — but no rallying cry for women

FT View

FT View: The market sell-off points to benign causes
Sliding bond and equity prices are not yet a reason for distress

FT View: Content kings bet that scale is key to survival
A Viacom-CBS reunion would be just the latest flight to scale

The Big Read

The Big Read: Brexit chaos shatters Theresa May’s illusion of unity
As talks reach their crunch point, the prime minister faces a rebellion from Conservative Eurosceptics who fear she favours a close relationship with the EU

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article