Could Fair Trade Data Bring Us Closer to a Universal Basic Income?

Erin Marie Miller
May 8 · 4 min read
Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash

Human rights are murky in the digital age, but a tweak in how we use data could change that.


Almost half a decade ago, I spent nearly two years working in marketing for an iconic American brand. We tracked sales and leads, obsessed over Facebook analytics, and planned events around our customers’ interests. Our information was acquired through a fair transaction — a customer purchased a product they wanted or needed and we tracked the sale so we could continue to offer relevant products. We also knew when they had opened our e-newsletters and which links they had clicked. We respected our customers’ privacy and never sold their information to third parties. Everything was pretty straightforward.

Then Big Data changed the landscape forever. Consumers became the product seemingly overnight. Huge corporations suddenly owned the playing field like schoolyard bullies who joined the game whether you wanted them to or not. More importantly, customers no longer received much in return for their transactions besides social feeds filled with targeted advertisements, inflammatory fake news, and clickbait-laden posts.

But data is not being treated like property, nor is it being regarded in terms of human rights.

Musician and entrepreneur will.i.am has written, “Data should be treated like property and people should be fairly compensated for it.” But data is not being treated like property, nor is it being regarded in terms of human rights.

Investopedia estimates that Facebook has the potential to generate between $46 million to $92 million from the sales of data — a staggering amount considering how little its users receive in return. Some of those sales have notoriously resulted in the undermining of democracy and equality while stripping citizens of privacy and autonomy without any real choice or transparency. In the last half-decade, scandals have ranged from Cambridge Analytica to digital redlining, lawsuits alleging circumventions of the Fair Housing Act, and human experiments on emotional control and contagion through social media manipulation. Data brokers have also profited from users’ personal misfortunes. According to the Financial Times’ personal data calculator, life events like going through a divorce increase the value of a user’s data.

Big Data’s reach has proved longer than some expected, extending even into America’s more vulnerable communities. Enterprises like Monsanto have begun taking advantage of the unregulated market, targeting farmers with controversial experimental data collection programs. Because the rules for data collection haven’t been fully established yet in the United States, such programs could have unpredictable consequences for farmers while stripping them of ownership of valuable information about their own farms and crops.

In terms of digital human rights, the United States has fallen behind in the race. The European Union’s GDPR was recently passed requiring transparency from companies about privacy and data collection across all of the EU nations, while smaller countries like Estonia have ensured that sensitive private health data is owned by citizens — not corporations. Individual states like California have attempted to take the lead in digital privacy, but other states — and the federal government — have yet to catch up, and the question of data ownership has remained largely ignored.

Experts have argued that a balance needs to be maintained between consumer privacy and market competition in order to keep the tech industry afloat. So what would the world — and the market — look like if data ownership changed hands? The answer may lie in a recent study from Stanford University.

Economics professors Christopher Tonetti and Charles I. Jones considered questions of privacy, efficiency, and competition when creating three simulations to examine how different versions of data ownership might play out in the real world. When they looked at how data is used today, they found a less-than-ideal scenario where privacy concerns were often ignored and data sharing was inefficient. In another simulation banning data sharing entirely, they found a stifled economy. An ideal situation, however, did pan out when they looked at individual data ownership where consumers were given the option to keep some of their data private while selling other data to multiple firms, diversifying the market and allowing citizens to profit from their own data production.

Fair trade data might not be a perfect alternative or even an answer to the question of UBI, but it could be a good place to start.

Since the question of data ownership has been relatively unexamined until recently, it’s unclear as to how a marketplace might be designed to maintain a strong economy while giving consumers more options for privacy and profits.

As AI and other new technologies continue to threaten jobs, some presidential candidates have opposed the idea of a universal basic income while others have begun to take it more seriously. Fair trade data might not be a perfect alternative or even an answer to the question of UBI, but it could be a good place to start by leveling the playing field and giving consumers more options to profit from their own products.

However the very real problem of data is ultimately solved, one thing is clear — its potential, like the information itself, is unlimited.

Update: This article previously mentioned hu-manity.co’s business model as an example. Due to recent ethical concerns about the company’s legislative initiatives regarding data, that paragraph has been removed.

Erin Marie Miller

Written by

Freelance journalist and photographer based in Detroit. My work focuses on people, business, and technology.

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