Laws That Get You Paid for Your Data Are Cool, But They Won't Work

If there were a law on the books tomorrow that said Google and other tech companies had to pay you for your data, how exactly would that happen? How are we going to enforce that if a company doesn't comply? How are we going to get people the money?

There has been a lot of recent movement in the direction of sharing or returning value to consumers for their data:

And these are all great steps or gestures towards raising public awareness and getting the conversation to where it needs to be, but they are not even close to the end game.

The Conceptual Leap

On this blog we assume that you own your data, just like you own your thoughts, ideas, and labor, until you sign away the rights. In fact, those are all categories of data.

So how does it make sense to first sign away those thoughts and ideas through Terms of Use agreements, and then have a law that requires companies who collect them to pay you a small fee in return. What happens then is the company gets unlimited value out of your data for life and you've likely received a one-time payment. Or maybe there's a yearly tax on advertising companies and you don't directly see any of it.

You see how this is backwards. You own your data first, and then you decide whom to sell or lease it to and for how much. The only way we can really know how much an individual's data is worth is by creating a free market for it.

Right now our data is bundled with thousands or millions of other people's data and sold in walled-garden markets like Facebook and Google. There, the only buyers are advertisers, and those advertisers are only the ones interested in reaching the platform's users specifically.

Say you have some electronics to sell, as well as some antiques, but the only place to sell any of it is at Best Buy. You'd get market value for the electronics, perhaps, but the buyers there wouldn't have any idea how much all these other pieces of junk are worth.

Much of the data we generate is like these antiques in the wrong store. What if we could take them to a roadshow and get full value?

Imagine what social scientists, researchers, governments, and your average person with a cool idea could discover if they were able to browse and purchase (or even better, lease) data directly from data owners as easily as buying products on eBay.

What Are We Waiting For

What we need is a legal precedent set before the Supreme Court that codifies exactly what data we own. Implementation of any law or policy like the ones presented so far would be costly and fraught with unknown pitfalls. We would need some sort of infrastructure and agency to monitor companies, enforce penalties, get people paid, handle false claims, etc.

With a legal precedent, consumer consciousness will change. Market incentives will allow other companies to innovate around new rules and build an infrastructure organically that will enrich the companies and consumers alike. Instead of companies seeing opportunity in tricking people into giving up their data in surveillance apps, entrepreneurs will find ways to help people sell their data more efficiently and share in the revenue. Incentives will align, instead of our situation now where market incentives and the best interests of consumers are at extreme odds.

As far as I can tell, there is no such lawsuit in the works, but in my mind it's inevitable. The more people learn about the way social media makes money, the more unsettling they find it. And the technical literacy of the public is finally catching up to the way these companies operate. In one study, 74% of Facebook users didn't know the company had a list of their interests that were used to help advertisers target them. Once informed, 51% were not comfortable with the practice.

I can only imagine that number goes up as more and more people start to understand the mechanics. After that, all it takes is one more logical step to realize that the data should be going to the user first, and that users are entitled to any money made off the data the they generated.

But alas, I am an optimist.

Cover image by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

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