Policy Approaches to Addressing Data Access Challenges in the Evolving Online Ecosystem

Authors: Henry Tuck
Published: 11 September 2023

Extremist, hate and disinformation actors are increasingly exploiting not just major online platforms, but also a wide range of smaller and medium-sized platforms across the online ecosystem. Over the past 18 months, ISD and CASM Technology have been conducting research, funded by Omidyar Network, aimed at monitoring harmful online activity on these platforms, and analysing the technological, legal and ethical data access challenges they pose to researchers. Despite recent or upcoming regulatory changes in key jurisdictions, and the high levels of risk smaller and medium-sized platforms can present, many of these barriers to conducting research are yet to be fully or even partially addressed.

This policy brief summarises the key findings from the project and feedback received during engagements with other researchers, policymakers, regulators and the private sector. It then provides an overview of existing or proposed legislation in key jurisdictions, including the EU, US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, assessing the extent to which they would impact access to data for researchers from smaller or medium-sized platforms.

It concludes with a series of recommendations for the private sector, policymakers and the research community to address the data access challenges identified, and help ensure the quality, comparability and replicability of online research:

  • Calling for platforms to provide data access at a reasonable cost, in a systematic and reliable way for data related to public areas of the platform, and not restricting public interest research through their Terms of Service.
  • Calling for policymakers to provide regulators with flexible powers to require access to public data from any platform that presents high levels of risk, or at a minimum, introduce legal protections for researchers conducting public interest, privacy-respecting online research.
  • Encouraging academic and civil society researchers to share effective data collection approaches or tools and, where possible, pool legal expertise on platform data access.
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