Domestic Affairs

Sell Your Data!

data (n.) 1640s, “a fact given or granted,” classical plural of datum, from Latin datum “(thing) given,” neuter past participle of dare “to give”. 

Data has silently grown to be the critical economic resource of the 21st century. From creation to consumption, it generates enormous topline growth of both wealth and power for private and public sectors, and yet its producers are not privy to its economic benefits. Consistent with its etymological root, channels of data ownership lack reciprocity. In short, we give but see no direct return.

Responsible data management demands a balanced ecosystem of trust between individuals, government and the private sector. The rise of the surveillance state and online voter manipulation is a clear indicator that we are failing to meet this standard. Political echo chambers blossom in the digital infrastructures of personalized search results. Moreover, the dangers of equating the persuasion architectures of digital technologies with that of crude, ineffective poster propagandas have been widely ignored. Billboard displays have been displaced by hyper targeted ads, personalized by the information we make available (whether we remember consenting or not). It now allows gambling companies to detect when a person suffering from a personality disorder enters a manic episode, and proceed to remorselessly target them with ads. 

Yet, while there is an urgent need to address regulatory and privacy issues, data ownership must also be examined as an economic issue. 

As of January 2021, there were approximately 4.66 billion active internet users. The average volume of data produced by each individual every second is estimated to be around 1.7 MB. Thus, the current estimate for daily global output stands at 1.145 trillion MB. A growing number of organizations recognize the strategic power of data to drive growth and modernization. The tech companies that dominated American business prior to the pandemic now constitute 20% of the stock market’s total net worth. Data is the foundation of these enterprises, but we — the producers of the data — do not reap the financial benefits.

We are all helpless givers in our relationship with the Internet. As life coach and relationship expert Lisa Kaplin, Psy.D puts it, “the giver has allowed the taker to be a taker, and doesn’t ask for anything, so the taker just keeps taking.”

There is an unspoken tension between present systems of data ownership and longstanding capitalist models. While industrial capitalism was safeguarded by the reluctant reliance of capital on labor, digital capitalism upsets this precarious balance of power. As machines have grown increasingly autonomous over the past century, labor has lost leverage in the workplace and shares in the economy’s profits. Mirroring the diminishing bargaining power of workers, providers of personal data are unable to claim their fair share of tech firms’ value and John F. Kennedy’s promise that “the rising tide lifts all boats” appears increasingly removed from reality.

Economic recognition for our contributions to capital is possible. By demanding autonomy over our data and choosing to use, gift, destroy, trade or sell it at a negotiated price, we could self-regulate our trade-offs between privacy and profit based on our priorities. For instance, someone pricing their data at $1 million would reduce vulnerability to political manipulation. Attitudes to privacy are nuanced and vary across demographics, with younger demographics generally expressing less concern about surveillance issues. Furthermore, theoretical models have hypothesized a link with personality traits, suggesting that neuroticism and openness were strong predictors of attitudes toward privacy control. Placing pricing power in the hands of data producers would facilitate control over personal tradeoffs between privacy and profit.

One option proposed by law professor Eric Posner and economist Glen Weyl in their book “Radical Markets” would be to treat data collected by tech companies as labor, not capital. Individuals would be invited to provide contextual data in exchange for payment. Posner and Weyl posit that the strategy would mitigate the harm of mass unemployment, lend recognition to the contribution of data-producers, and boost the productivity of the economy through higher quality data. 

Data ownership could otherwise take a collective approach through which data could be considered a public resource that companies could access by paying royalties that would later be distributed across the population. Further, mandating producer anonymity could ameliorate privacy concerns.

Start-ups have also responded to the call for the data to take its place in the digital economy. Founded in 2008 by Gabriel Weinberg, the internet search engine DuckDuckGo emphasizes searchers’ privacy and avoiding the filter bubble of personalized search results. Since its founding, the company has enjoyed significant growth, reaching over 100 million daily searches by January 2021. 

Other initiatives are attempting to return revenue to data producers. The new social app UBDI (Universal Basic Data Income) helps people make money by sharing anonymous insights from their data that companies need for market research. Whenever a company purchases a study, users get paid in cash and UBDI points to track their contribution. Furthermore, by using private sharing technology, they ensure only aggregated, anonymized information from members is shared. 


As data’s economic importance continues to balloon, the case for its monetization strengthens. According to a 2018 report conducted by McKinsey, artificial intelligence will add $13 trillion to current global economic output by 2030, or about 16% higher cumulative GDP compared with today. The pandemic will likely increase this figure. Data provided by individuals is critical to these profits, and yet we are unlikely to see any return on our contributions. As global inequities continue to tower, now is the time to consider a model for a digital economy that is built on reciprocity and fairness.

Categories: Domestic Affairs

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