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The Quiet Invasion of 'Big Information'

This story is adapted from Data Cartels: The Companies That Control and Monopolize Our Information, by Sarah Lamdan.

When people worry about their data privacy, they usually focus on the Big Five tech companies: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft. Legislators have brought Facebook’s CEO to the capitol to testify about the ways the company uses personal data. The FTC has sued Google for violating laws meant to protect children’s privacy. Each of the tech companies is followed by a bevy of reporters eager to investigate how it uses technology to surveil us. But when Congress got close to passing data privacy legislation, it wasn’t the Big Five that led the most urgent effort to prevent the law from passing, it was a company called RELX.

You might not be familiar with RELX, but it knows all about you. Reed Elsevier LexisNexis (RELX) is a Frankensteinian amalgam of publishers and data brokers, stitched together into a single information giant. There is one other company that compares to RELX—Thomson Reuters, which is also an amalgamation of hundreds of smaller publishers and data services. Together, the two companies have amassed thousands of academic publications and business profiles, millions of data dossiers containing our personal information, and the entire corpus of US law. These companies are a culmination of the kind of information market consolidation that’s happening across media industries, from music and newspapers to book publishing. However, RELX and Thomson Reuters are uniquely creepy as media companies that don’t just publish content but also sell our personal data.

Despite being a billion-dollar data and information business—just one of RELX’s brands, alone, has profit margins that rival Apple, Google, and Amazon’s—RELX doesn’t get the same level of public scrutiny that those other companies do. It’s likely easier for most of us to ignore RELX and its industry counterparts than it is to ignore the social media and online shopping platforms that we use every day. We visit the Big Five companies’ platforms whenever we want to read the news, catch up with friends, shop, or look something up. Most of us don’t have such an intimate user relationship with RELX, even if we do legal research on Lexis, read Elsevier journals, or use LexisNexis personal data services at work. Even if you don’t feel like you have close, personal ties to RELX, one of the company’s dossiers probably has your name on it—and that information may be used to make decisions about your everyday life.

On one end of the informational spectrum, companies like RELX exploit a lack of data privacy laws to make millions of dollars building data products to sell to cops, your employer, your landlords, your insurance companies, and all sorts of other institutions and overlords. These companies and institutions use RELX’s “risk” products to make decisions about whether you should get hired for a job, have custody of your children, have access to certain types of medication, and even whether you will be detained or arrested. RELX’s LexisNexis products have helped the government spy on protesters’ social media accounts and surveil immigrants. Police have abused LexisNexis systems to spy on exes and even to blackmail women using the personal information the company’s policing products provide. Using RELX products for data surveillance is problematic because the company funnels a deluge of unfiltered, unvetted data through biased data-processing algorithms. The combination of bad data and bad algorithms leads to government systems that bake historically racist, xenophobic policing practices and outcomes into a Minority Report-like digital policing dystopia.

The companies’ error-riddled data has prevented people from accessing their own bank accounts and getting insurance, and from being able to rent homes. The mistakes in RELX’s data make it all the more worrisome. RELX is growing its list of data analytics products, and is even developing technology that makes predictions about your health based on your private medical records, assessing your health risks for insurers and your doctors. Imagine what could happen to your health care access if you were wrongly tagged as at risk for opioid abuse or as having a certain chronic illness.

The companies can “double-dip” with their data assets, selling raw data and also selling structured information made from that raw data. For instance, RELX’s Elsevier sells academic journal articles, and it also creates research “metrics” products with data gathered by tracking the activities and associations of its authors, and also by surveilling who is accessing articles and what they’re doing with them. These metrics products predict which researchers, and which research projects, will have the most “impact.” Such rankings help grant funders divvy out money and institutions decide which hires will make them appear the most prestigious. Academic metrics take scientific decisions out of the hands of scientists whose expertise should lead scientific decisionmaking. They also turn universities and grant funders into rich data sources for the analytics companies.

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Metrics products also motivate the companies to surveil academics as they do their research, to track the articles they read and cite, and monitor associations they make with peers. Academic surveillance is never a good thing, because tracking people as they conduct research chills discourages them from looking at controversial materials. Today, academic surveillance is especially fraught, given the growing interest in policing what educators are allowed to say and teach. Companies like RELX already sell personal data products to policing agencies, and they are known to build products that cater to specific policing and surveillance programs. Just as we worry about tech companies helping to track people seeking reproductive and gender-affirming care, it’s not a stretch to envision a future where they create products that track academics teaching and researching contentious, politicized subjects like critical race theory or gender studies.

On the other end of the informational spectrum, companies like RELX prevent us from seeing critically important information that’s supposed to be public. The companies privatize taxpayer-funded research, making the public pay to see factual data about pressing problems like climate change and the Covid pandemic. Paywalling factual studies and news stories creates an informational void that the public fills with misinformation, and even conspiracy theories. As journalist Nathan J. Robinson depicts the problem caused by companies like RELX, the truth is paywalled, but lies are free. RELX and Thomson Reuters even paywall our laws, putting our best, most up-to-date and easy-to-understand legal information out of the public’s reach. In 2020, the Supreme Court told RELX’s LexisNexis that it couldn’t paywall Georgia state statutes because our laws belong to us. Chief Justice Roberts noted the injustice of giving the public a lesser free “economy-class” version of laws and blocking the best version behind a Lexis paywall.

Most information companies specialize in a particular type of information. For example, Oracle and Equifax are major data brokers, but they don’t also run legal information platforms. Bloomberg LP is a powerful financial information provider, but it doesn’t also control access to thousands of academic journals. CNN is a major news source, but it doesn’t sell personal data dossiers on the side. In contrast to these specialized information providers, RELX and Thomson Reuters don’t focus on one information sector. Each market the companies dominate is massive on its own. Combined, the markets comprise much of the information that people need to make critical legal, financial, and science-based decisions. In the Gilded Age, companies like RELX and Thomson Reuters were depicted as octopus-like monopolies with tentacles wrapped around multiple industries and the government forces tasked with reigning them in.

Because companies like RELX have their tentacles entwined into so many information markets and so many types of analytics products, and because their products are so embedded in so many government programs and projects, regulating them requires an array of interventions. There is no singular, magical fix to ensure that the sprawling data analytics companies both provide access to critical public information and properly treat our private data.

We need to enact data privacy laws that require data companies to be more transparent about how they are collecting and using our data, and more accountable for it. We also need to close loopholes in the Privacy Act of 1974 and pass new laws like the “Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act” that require the government to get a warrant before accessing our RELX data dossiers. We need to limit the size and power of tech companies with robust antitrust law enforcement to better protect and empower consumers. We need to provide sufficient funding to support public access to critical information like we did for newspapers, public radio, and public television in the past. Tech systems like Amazon’s online superstore, Facebook’s social media platform, and Google’s search engine are ossifying into sturdy, immovable features of internet life, but it’s not too late to prevent data analytics companies from cementing their role as digital information barons.


Excerpted from Data Cartels: The Companies That Control and Monopolize Our Information, by Sarah Lamdan, published by Stanford University Press, ©2023 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All Rights Reserved. 

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