Could Paying People for Their Data Lead to a Universal Basic Income?

New business models enabled by secure mass micropayments could upend how networks distribute value in exchange for consumer data and redefine our everyday notion of work

The Instagram Problem: Digital Networks and Value Distribution

Back in 2014 or so I was flipping through books in the science & tech section of the bookstore when I came across the following passage:

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A Radical Solution: Pay People for Their Data

Back as early as 2013, Lanier was proposing shakeups to the digital economy which he hoped might solve this problem. What sounded radical or quixotic five years ago is, startlingly, beginning to sound prescient today. He proposed that

A New Technological Primitive: Secure, Mass Micropayments

Today we still live in a world reeling from the consequences we didn’t expect the internet would have for our economy, our political systems, even our minds. The future as we know it will bring more job losses, continued consolidation of power in the hands of a few behemoth companies, and vastly increasing income inequality. This was the future I grew up with, the future every smart adult I respected told me was coming.

New Tech Enables New Business Models

I believe that new business models enabled by this “secure micropayments” primitive are going to radically reshape the digital economy as we know it today. If this all sounds abstract, let’s look at a few concrete examples of real business models being implemented today that could not have existed under the old guard.

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Source: eMarketer via

Beyond Digital Advertising

$234 a year is a substantial amount of money, but not enough to live on. This income stream might not be able to replace traditional work, but it could certainly supplement it. And digital advertising is just one area of the economy in which everyday users of products could contribute value. Lanier proposed just such a system for valuating the user data provided to, for example, machine learning algorithms:

A New Definition of Work

As intelligent software takes on more and more functions, it will require more and more data from users in ways that we cannot yet anticipate today. Now that technology has made it much easier to build platforms in which users who provide this data are compensated for it, I believe we will see a proliferation of such models. Someday your supplemental income stream might come from many different sources, from the driving routes you take to work (your GPS data from Google Maps) to the emails you send and receive (which might improve language processing algorithms). All these could add up to a kind of “universal basic income,” generated entirely by free market forces which adequately compensate users for anonymously giving society access to the valuable data underpinning their everyday consumptive behavior.

just a confused kid trying to understand

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