For Facebook users furious about the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, there are currently two options to protest and protect your data: stay and have little control over your data privacy, or leave and forfeit the convenience and connectivity social media brings.
But what if there was a third option? What if the companies profiting from user-generated data had to pay you for it? What if each user got to decide whom to sell their data to, and at what price?
The personal data that social media and IoT users generate enrich the world’s largest tech companies. But as illustrated in the current testimony being presented by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Congress, most of the regulators’ focus is about how data is collected and used, not who owns it. But if the data we’re generating has proven to be so valuable, then why are we the ones paying the price, rather than being paid?
It is time to discuss individual data ownership—the most fundamental digital-property right.
At its core, data ownership is not a privacy issue—it’s an economic issue. Personal data is sold, bought, and traded among companies all the time, often without the individual’s consent or awareness. By allowing individuals access to that market, we could allow users to translate their outputs into economic goods.
This would give people control over their data from both a financial and privacy perspective. The line between private and personal is nuanced, and that boundary represents different trade-offs to different people. For example, millions of Chinese small-business owners who can’t get microloans from traditional banks might be quite happy to offer their personal data to gain a fast grant from machine-learning-empowered micro-lending businesses like Dumiao. However, many European users with less restrictions might feel more reluctant to give their personal data away for this purpose. Equally, if certain sets of biodata could contribute to research to cure cancer, some people (myself included) probably would donate it for free.
Likewise, if an e-commerce company wanted to repurpose my browsing history to target my demographic more accurately, I could sell my data for a price—or get a discount on the product they’re hawking. But if a political consulting firm such as Cambridge Analytica wanted to purchase data from an online personality profile to manipulate my vote, I could choose to never sell my data, or set the price unattainably high to block such data harvests.
This isn’t such a radical idea. Historically, ownership in civil law and freehold in common law are concepts focusing on land, which was once the primary representation of wealth. Ownership means the owner can process, use, sell, give away, or destroy the property.
Data as a legal subject or digital property has several layers of complexity that challenge the traditional definition of ownership. For example, data can be easily generated and collected, but it lacks marketability: In other words, unlike land, it’s hard for individuals to trade. If data can’t be easily sold at the owner’s will, the ownership is then incomplete.
Individual data ownership therefore hasn’t been an easy debate. But this might be about to change.
Rapidly developing blockchain technology is offering methods for us to be able to trade our data. Some pioneering companies are building infrastructures to allow individuals to trade personal data, while others are creating tokens with clear economic values as an incentive to collect specific types of data.
- Wibson and Ocean Protocal are building a decentralized data marketplace that would allow individuals to sell their personal data anonymously and securely.
- Protocols such as IOTA and Moeco are specifically built to enable a more decentralized ecosystem for data collection, usage, and exchanges.
- Nano Vision, a startup founded by Steven Papermaster, who served US president George W. Bush as a tech advisor, is creating a token to incentivize molecular data collection through microchips.
The Facebook failure serves as a wake-up call. We have turned the corner for individual data ownership and are on our way to a more decentralized approach to personal data. One day, we will truly have an effective and impartial data marketplace that will allow us to buy and sell our self-generated assets as we choose.
Ownership is an expression of freedom. In the digital age, individual data ownership will be the cornerstone of the digital freedom we all deserve.