Control by Licensing

Having spent most of my life near alcohol, I’m very conscious that the state both licences me to supply it – and also licences the premises that I supply it from. Thus I require both a personal licence, for which you need to pass an exam, undergo a Criminal Record Check (and yes I have heard the old joke about what happens if you haven’t got one..) and subject yourself to local council approval, since the council covering your place of residence issues personal licences.

The premises are similarly licensed by the local authority and that will include the permitted opening times and any other restrictions such as alcohol to be served only to accompany food or for sale only for takeaway – similar to the old ‘on’ and ‘off’ licences. The licensing is supervised by the police who have, in every licensing area, a licensing officer who will visit and find out how you propose to operate and may seek to impose supplementary or different conditions if they are not to object to your case, prior to the licence being granted (or not) by the local council.

There are, of course, other areas of licensing. I for example, also have a CPC, which is a Certificate of Professional Competence to run a road transport fleet. Again training and exams are involved. Since I gained my CPC, now all road transport drivers themselves, in addition to their driving licences for the appropriate size of vehicle (whether bus or lorry) now have to have their own CPC, which is renewable every five years after a recurring, appropriate period of training.

Now my purpose here is not to suggest that, having multiple licences, the next stage is to apply, James Bond style, for a licence to kill, but just to show simply that the state has powers to authorise activities, which, in the absence of its express permission, become illegal.

Given that it does this sort of thing every day of the week – it is part of the state’s essence, then why on earth are we not controlling the so-called new technology companies in the same way?

If freely given data has, we now discover, such value, then the very least the state should be doing is much more effectively licensing its storage and use. It is a common good, voluntarily provided by most members of the population of any given jurisdiction. If the tech companies can monetise it to such effect why on earth doesn’t the state control and licence its creation?

At the moment this is the sole responsibilty of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to whom a Data Protection Fee is payable.

While Google and Facebook, among others, are harvesting, storing and monetising vast amounts of our data, currently the ICO lacks any sort of comparable resources and is consequently for ever on the backfoot.

In my view we need to enhance the powers of the ICO and adopt a real licensing model. If we were doing it properly every police area should have a data licensing officer, which would be the start of creating more proficiency within the police for detecting internet fraud and deception, the control and prevention of which is currently woefully inadequate.

Chief executives would need personal licences to handle data, premises where data was stored would need to be licensed too (and if is not UK based then the licensing would need to be significantly surcharged compared to a UK address, to enable a site visit from the licensing officer. If we stay in the EU I’d suggest that storage within the EU would be conditional on the granting of the licence.)

And the the high tech company would be granted a licence based on how much data it intended to collect and had already in store and the uses to which it is proposed that it be put.  These uses would be a condition of, and on, the (publicly available) licence. Clearly the method of calculating how the amount of data is measured would be the subject of consultation – possibly simply just so much a gigabyte, but the charge for personalised data collection would need to be much greater than general non personalised data. The local data licensing officer would visit all the licensed premises, as well as the licensees, and find out how the companies work and what they wish to be licensed for. They would also be vetting the personal licence holders and tour the offices or other premises of the company, all of which would require floor plans to be submitted, just as is required for an alcohol licence.

Indeed I’d suggest that every separate location would need a personal licence holder who was responsible for that location. They might well be required to keep up their training to renew these, lorry driver style, every five years as a way of engendering proper local responsibilty. If we stay in the EU, I would even suggest this sort of system is adopted throughout its jurisdiction – indeed even if we don’t, I see little alternative to a European wide licensing requirement given the size and pervasiveness of many of the companies involved. The EU is, after all, Google’s largest market and much bigger than the USA where amazingly, Yahoo manages to offer some competition.

Companies such as Google and Facebook would need licences that would probably cost tens of millions. DuckDuckGo because it doesn’t collect personal data might get one for a much more reasonable charge.

After all, if this information is actually ours individually then why should the state be agreeing that we offer it up for free without proper and close control?

Licensing would avoid the doubt of who was in charge. We have alcohol licensing now because the free for all of Gin Lane was injurious to society. We are at a similar ‘Gin Lane’ level of a virtual free for all in data capture. We need a new ‘Gin Act’ which in 1751 prohibited gin distillers from selling to unlicensed merchants, but this time for high tech companies.The general good demands it and we can simultaneously demonstrate to whom the data really belongs.

As Mariana Mazzucato has pointed out, the clever ‘tech’ companies are past masters at purloining and patenting things that were effectively invented by the state. Licensing is a way to help put the power of the democratic state back in charge as well as establishing that much valuable information comes from the people who are its citizens.

Detailed licensing is a way to advance and democratise control.

Actually, I’d suggest, it would in fact, be a significant start on the road to inhibit the further wholesale enclosure and privatisation of the economy by the overweening resources of global corporations.


  1. Graham -

    Agreed. And as you have suggested before we users have to take some responsibility for what information we allow to be harvested. At your suggestion I have been using DuckDuckGo for some weeks now and don’t miss Google. I find I have to use Facebook on occasions but I post nothing on my profile and seem to manage to live without tweeting every 5 minutes.

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