Major players are starting to recognize the value of data; can they do anything about it?

It would seem that some state actors and regulators are beginning to wise up to the value of personal data. The latest example comes out of California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his intention to introduce a “data dividend” to get citizens paid for the use of their private data:

“Companies that make billions of dollars collecting, curating and monetizing our personal data have a duty to protect it,” Newsom said in his address. “Consumers have a right to know and control how their data is being used.”
Currently, Newsom’s proposal is lacking in details — it’s really more of a concept at this point, but he took a strong stance against user exploitation by tech corporations, many of which are housed in his state.

Newsom’s announcement is a welcome one for those of us who have been preaching the value of data and its increasingly central role as a future commodity, but there’s a reason the story and his quotes stick to generalities and rely on qualifiers.

Unfortunately for Newsom, and for citizens the world over, the tech giants whose influence over how we use and lose our private data are not about to simply abandon their incredibly lucrative business models just because politicians are beginning to realize that “getting paid for data” sounds good on the stump.

We believe that true data sovereignty won’t arise from wishy-washy, arcane promises made by canny politicians, nor from the tech giants who claim to cheer on these developments. What’s needed is a movement; one with several fronts.

The future data economy needs a new class of advocates

Part of the reason that current data privacy norms are so lax is that the firms that profit off of your data were allowed to unilaterally set the terms by which you interact with their services — services that have since become synonymous with the internet itself. In his Davos statement, Apple’s Tim Cook challenged the tech sector to “stand up for the right to privacy” — yet anyone who’s ever absent-mindedly OK’d an iTunes Service Agreement knows that Apple itself has plenty of work to do when it comes to prioritizing informed consent in their flagship products.

Apple’s Tim Cook at Davis, credit: Financial Times

Of course, we agree with Cook’s thesis here:

As this debate kicks off, there will be plenty of proposals and competing interests for policymakers to consider. We cannot lose sight of the most important constituency: individuals trying to win back their right to privacy.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t rely on the same major tech companies that have profited from obscuring how our data is used and marketed to help rewrite the rulebook and implement real change. We should rely on the tools and expertise of actors with a tacit interest in dava privacy and sovereignty, and make sure that their voices are represented at the table when state actors make their determinations about enforcement and applicability.

Real, accessible solutions need to be mounted

As always, the best defense is a good offense, and the best way to ensure that robust data privacy and marketing solutions can and will come to pass is simply to build them without waiting for those same tech giants to wise up and overhaul their tech stacks and revenue models. There are tremendous hurdles to be overcome, especially for North American firms pondering GDRP-style reforms, and even the best-intentioned goliaths may find it prohibitively difficult to pivot effectively as they try to maneuver profitability and compliance.

“It’s ironic that for years, as long as I’ve been here, companies have said that we can self-regulate; we don’t need any federal regulation,” [technologist Ashkan] Soltani told Ars. “But then as soon as there are state initiatives, the companies are, like, ‘It’s time for federal regulation!’”

It’s more effective, both as a pressuring tactic on existing parties and as an overall strategy, to build new solutions from the ground up with up-to-snuff data privacy and payment capabilities as founding principles rather than impositions to be grafted on after the fact.

These new solutions could also employ open source or hybrid models of ownership to ensure that development communities can vet these features for maximum effectiveness and accessibility, not to mention transparency, a quality completely lacking in so many of the most problematic companies currently harvesting our data.

Features that reorient our collective values

It’s often said that when people get used to a net benefit, it’s extremely difficult to then take it away without a serious fight. Internet users never fought for their privacy and the right to profit from the use and marketing of their data because they were never given a sense of its value in the first place. Solutions like Shyft offer features that place control of the same personally-identifiable data that so many companies and malicious actors have ruthlessly exploited offer a new vision and value set to users, paving the way for a society whose relationship with the internet is utterly reoriented.

Imagine, for instance, an alternate version of Facebook, one in which control over what personal data you share is much more granular, and much more prominent in the UI. (No digging through submenus; no arbitrary resets requiring you to dig back through a new set of menus to re-perform the same adjustments…)

Imagine that each time one of the pieces of data you’ve given permission for certain third parties to make use of, you were directly compensated for your trouble. Imagine that because none of the actual data is stored on this alt-Facebook’s servers thanks to a sophisticated blockchain-based architecture, any compromise or unauthorized access couldn’t result in the loss or theft of that data. Finally, imagine having the ability to revoke your permission at any time if you decide the terms aren’t satisfactory.

This is the sort of feature set we’re looking to enable for all sorts of applications and sectors, not only because they’re innately desirable, but because they reorient the sense of access and control from the service to the users themselves, while still offering lucrative features for all parties. We believe that this reorientation is what’s needed to sustain the internet as a viable place for us to gather, communicate, and transact safely and privately. It’s not going to be handed to us; we’re going to have to build it.