My Data Is My Property — Pay Me If You Use It

What’s Yours is Mine and What’s Mine is Mine

Let’s talk privacy.

Not the Jack Bauer national security, law enforcement type of privacy. Rather, the simple everyday — every minute — corporate collection and use of our personal digital data by, oh let’s just say every internet, computer, and phone related company.

Generally, the rationale for the collection and use of our data comes in three flavors.

  • Patriotic— To provide a more satisfying experience and better serve us.
  • Altruistic — ‘Hey, we do this so you do not have to pay to use our service.’
  • Economic — To make money we need to sell it to advertisers.

While there is some truth to the patriotic and altruistic reasons, the economic reason is everything.

But why does the online world operate in a way that is different from the physical, real world stores and malls? I mean they, too, collect customer data to constantly try to improve the experience and service. They have overhead yet provide free access. And, they advertise everything everywhere. So, why is data collection and use in the online world so different and more invasive?

To be clear, no one is against making money or advertising (despite how intrusive and inane much of it is), which subsidizes most of the media we all consume. Rather, the issue is the brazen wholesale expropriation of our personal data without any actual informed consent (if not unfair to rape victims, rape would be the preferred metaphor here). Why?

As Yogi Berra once said, ‘When you come to the fork in the road, take it.’

Roots of today’s personal data regime goes back to the early days of the Internet, especially after the dotcom crash. Then, less than six percent of world population used the net (compared to ~ 45 percent now) and the issue of monetization loomed large in terms of survival. As a result, the online marriage of market research and advertising to better target potential customers grew organically as a necessity.

Over time, data collection and use became ever more sophisticated and more questionable. Under the guise of privacy policies — legalistically cryptic and mind-numbing — companies steadily broaden their claims to the ownership of all data generated in connection with the use of their services. Further, that they are unrestrained in how they use or monetize our data, yet have no culpability if a data buyer misuses it.

But let’s be real.

Beyond security, no brick and mortar store or mall would claim the right to follow you around the store or mall and record every facet of your trek everywhere you visited. Nor would they claim the right to record everything you look at and how long you look at it, who you talk with and what you talk about. No one would tolerate this.

A rose by any other name is still a rose

It is really quite bizarre that online businesses and governments presume they own our personal data; that they can take whatever they want, whenever they want it and use it for anything they want without any real informed consent or compensation. Yet, any similar attempt to expropriate any other form of property is illegal.

And that is the point. It is our property.

As far back as Roman times the history of Western civilization is, in many ways, built on property law. While focused solely on land initially, over time the definition of property was extended to personal and movable possessions — cars, jewelry, devices, art and so on — and now seems obvious.

Unless I am seriously missing something, from now until the end of time our personal data — what we do and do not do, our health and habits, our whereabouts, what we consume and when, who we associate with — will grow in importance as the root currency for everything — all business, government, educational and entertainment activities. This means that, increasingly, the details of our digital lives — our personal data — will be the most valuable property most of us own. Hello!!!!

Consequently, time has come to extend the definition of property to include our personal data. As such, our control over its use is exactly the same as it us with any of our other personal property. This means that everyone of us, as an individual, has

  • The exclusive legal right to sell, rent, restrict or prohibit the use of our personal data property.
  • A legally enforceable protection against anyone who takes or use it without informed consent and just compensation.

“It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, if it catches mice it is a good cat.”

Now let’s talk money.

It is important to realize the amounts of money at issue here. Internet related companies like Google, for example, earn some $1200 per person per year using our data. Said differently, every search on Google costs them three cents but their net profit for that search is 24 cents, or 800 percent!

How companies like Google accomplish this data collection and make money from it is noteworthy — not only for what it does, but what it easily could do, which is cut us in on the game. For example, the moment you start to enter a search term, your historical profile and the nature of the offering or service available at that Web destination are combined into a single ad-profile. This profile is then automatically auctioned off to the advertiser willing to pay the highest price to reach you at that destination.

The key point to keep in mind that all this data collection, profile packaging, the auction and final placement of the ad takes place in milliseconds! Effectively it is instantaneous. Also, note that this technology is over a decade old.

Since all this algorithmic magic can be done for the benefit of advertisers in milliseconds, it seems reasonable to assume we users could be easily added into these data ad-sale auction somehow. That within an algorithmic transaction to sell our personal data property there is some mechanism — either prior to or coterminous with the transaction — to query and ascertain our willingness to sell and if so, that we are compensated just like the platform ad seller.

The new normal in the new digital economy

Might some companies make less money? Maybe. But, as in other marketplaces, it is more likely that the costs would be equitably distributed among all the parties. As a result, a new economic supply and demand ecosystem for the ad market would emerge. In the end, this would be beneficial to all parties involved and, as a side benefit, mitigate some classic, ongoing privacy concerns.

Two additional considerations seem noteworthy in advancing this personal data property model.

One is mitigating some of the current zero-sum security-privacy debate. The other is how the new digital economy is becoming ever more automated and leading to a growing conversation about the “gig” economy and potential need for some kind of basic income supplement.

The point being that there must be a better economic approach to mitigating our personal data property-privacy issue. For the benefit of all concerned,

“Let’s make an offer they can’t refuse.”

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In any case, may you live long and prosper.

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