Taking personal data rights to the ballot box

2018 is the year personal data hits the political campaign trail. It is the foundation on which James Felton Keith is building his bid to for election to the US Congress this year. His is a compelling narrative about how each individual should get a slice of the enormous value their data creates in the digital economy.

James — also known by the Presidential moniker JFK — will be no stranger to regular Internet of Me readers. He is a man on several missions, all with the common themes of personal data both as a means for business innovation and for its potential as a mechanism for economic inclusion. James is the principal mover behind Personal Data Week — which had its inaugural event in New York last summer — and the International Personal Data Trade Association.

His big mission this year, though, is to become Democratic candidate for Congress in New York’s 13th District. In a time of wage stagnation, widening social divides and a disconnect between GDP and the everyday experience of ordinary people leaving a sense that some in society are being ‘left behind’, his pitch is that the value in personal data could be a means for a fairer distribution of wealth.

“There’s been a lack of increase in income over past 40 years,” says James. “Getting into how we remedy that problem, I always end up talking about personal data and it being this asset class that we can better distribute wealth and value back to the participants in the economy.”

For James, whose background is in finance and economics, productivity and its impact on the performance of an economy has changed with the global dominance of technology. Personal data, he says, represents a valuable input to this new digitally driven economic order.

“Productivity is a measure of inputs. If I can give people some constitutional ownership of their input to the productivity of the economy then they have legal rights to negotiate for more income from that productivity.”

Ultimately, he sees the value in people’s data as something that could convert into hard cash within the economy.

“The core problem with issues from housing to education to health, is that there’s not enough money in the system to support them as utilities in society,” he says.

“We have allowed conservatives to brand taxes as a negative thing. Whether you are liberal or conservative, wealthy or poor, you generally don’t like the idea of taxes in the US.

“We need to find a new mechanism to get money back in the system to pay for the housing, the healthcare, the education. I argue that the way we pay for them is by putting bonus structures on the productivity back into the economy. In same was as 150 years ago when ‘oil was the new oil’ and the Rockefellers and Carnegies and Fords made these huge fortunes, the federal government and state governments went to them and insisted they put back into the economy which they had extracted so much from.”

James’s mention of the break-up of America’s oil monopoly in the early part of the last century was echoed by The Economist recently, in its analysis of how today’s tech giants could face such a prospect as their grip on markets — and our data — tightens.

In its main leader article, the magazine comments that “personal data are the currency in which customers actually buy services” that require “a new set of laws to govern the ownership and exchange of data, with the aim of giving solid rights to individuals. In essence this means giving people more control over their information”.

James continues: “We’re in a time where data is an even more pervasive and expansive asset class than oil was. Institutions are amassing huge fortunes and we have an opportunity to bring some of that productivity back into the economy.

“A lot of people don’t realise how productive the economy is — there’s a lot of rhetoric around GDP and its low performance as a measurement of how productive the economy is. In fact, the GDP in the US or anywhere else is really a measure of participation in an economy, a measure of transactions.

“That’s not to say that corporations are not more productive for less money than they were. They are. We see that from valuations and market caps and revenues.

“As we make this argument that people are the inputs to productivity and are owed a larger piece of the productivity pie, I think I can argue that the way we prop up housing, healthcare or education is by getting more revenues into the system so we can distribute those to people to live more productive, more healthy, and more informed lives.

“We need to change the legal system and how people can claim ownership of that productivity via their input.”

Hitting big tech companies with taxes is not, he says, the solution to the imbalance in how benefits from innovation and productivity are distributed more fairly.

“I’m talking about a better distribution of the wealth of the productivity that exits. If we give individuals ownership of their input to the productivity then it’s not really redistribution, it’s paying people what they are owed. Aside from the economic issue we think there is a whole lot of dignity tied to the idea that people are owned something from these very productive companies if they have interacted with them.”

The challenge for James and his team is to make these ideas real in terms of workable policies. He thinks Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation is a pretty good place to start, particularly the right to erasure which he believes gives people the vital leverage over the organisations that use their data.

“The GDPR is lowest hanging fruit for what we can do here,” he says. “It was a great step by Europe. The centre of all our policy efforts here is to be able to create a right to erasure. The right to erasure in the GDPR is the gateway for assigning ownership to people of their personal data. For the economy to expand in the future as we go through this paradigm shift we have to be able to assign ownership to the individual of all data that disseminates from them.”

The idea of ownership and control of one’s data being a human right has the potential to engage voters, James believes. It was an idea explored by Democratic Senator Tim Kennedy, one of the key speakers at Personal Data Week.

Last year, Sen Kennedy responded to the then new President Trump’s move to allow internet service providers to sell their customers’ personal information by tabling legislation to ban the practice in New York.

James says: “Politics is about winning and the win here is that we can make this a human rights argument because everyone wants their personal data protected.

“I want everyone here to have the same right of erasure that everyone on that side of the pond has. That sort of agency over your information is all we need to start the snowball effect of giving you outright ownership.”

So, here’s hoping that the year in which the GDPR comes into effect we will see it inspire a bid to reframe the rights of US citizens to own and control their data.

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