You Are the Product: A Three-Step Plan to Take Back Control of Personal Data
Entrepreneur and investor Jennifer Zhu Scott is a council member of The Future of Blockchain Council at the World Economic Forum and holds a dual fellowship with the APAC Program and the Digital Society Initiative at Chatham House. She is also a consultant to the HBO show “Silicon Valley.”
Let’s state a simple fact. Your traits and intimate personal information, such as your relationships, location histories, sexual orientation, genetic details and your children’s images have become business assets. But they are not yours. They are recorded in digital form and centrally controlled, owned, stored and repurposed for often outsized profit by a handful of corporates. What is the accurate characterization of your function to those companies? We’ve all heard this statement: “If you are not paying for the service, you are not a customer. You are the product.” But that may not be quite right. Shoshana Zuboff, the author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” says “Actually, you are not even the products. You are just the raw materials.”
Facebook carefully crafts algorithms to manipulate and exploit our vanity, greed, fear, insecurity, loneliness and dopamine, so billions of users, especially psychologically vulnerable youth or elderly people, will keep supplying raw materials for free. We are paying for the smartphone in our hands and the bandwidth to access the internet. It costs us time and attention and risks our mental wellbeing. We think we own our content, yet tech titans like Facebook, Google and Tencent milk it to target us for a fatter margin.
Obviously, it is easy to point out the problems. I intend to identify and create some solutions. Building on a TED talk I gave last December (see above), here are three ways we can change the power dynamic.
Step 1: Awareness
When we rushed to Facebook and Google in the early days, we were so excited about the capacities of technologies we neglected to think through the consequences. Digital Economy 1.0 is a failure at protecting our privacy and well-being. The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal was a rude wake-up call for us all. Public concerns over privacy, political implications and generational psychological damage have been growing ever since. But there are still too many of us relying on monopoly “services.” We need to understand (then help everyone around us to understand) how important it is to support the alternatives, even if they don’t function as well for now. Remember, Google is not indispensable; a search engine is. Google merely has a monopoly.
Step 2: The economic value of our personal data
We need to value our data properly. That doesn’t mean looking at the price on the open market. It means looking at the value created for the most data-savvy companies in the world. The combined revenue of Alphabet, Facebook and Tencent in 2019 was $284 billion. We live in a world of extreme, concentrated ownership of the most valuable asset of our time. We all have a job constantly contributing to these companies in every second of our digital life, but few of us are paid. To regain our digital freedom, it takes every one of us to realize and demand the economic value of our data and stop giving our data away for free.
We live in a world of extreme concentrated ownership of the most valuable asset of our time.
European regulators led the way to implement the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) giving individuals more control of their data. It is a meaningful starting point in bringing transparency and protecting individual privacy. But now what? While regulations like GDPR set a floor, the personal boundaries between the self and others cannot and should not be defined by regulators. Regulations alone can’t solve the data ownership inequality problem. But everybody can get behind getting paid for our contributions. By creating value out of personal data and giving it back to individuals, we can reduce inequality and perhaps even fund a universal basic income in an AI-driven economy.
Step 3: Create privacy-centric solutions
Brave is challenging Chrome, Telegram is up against WhatsApp and DuckDuckGo has Google Search in its sights. Apple is differentiating its business model against Facebook and Google by emphasizing it doesn’t need to make money by selling its users’ privacy. Many startups in the blockchain field, such as Ocean Protocol and IOTA, are creating privacy/end-user-centric solutions to redesign the data economy.
The failures of Digital Economy 1.0 are the opportunities for Digital Economy 2.0. I am working with a few like-minded people to allow individuals to be paid in dollars for viewing and sharing digital advertisements. Consumer awareness of privacy is growing fast, and so are the opportunities. Google was irrelevant 20 years ago. Who can say the data power dynamic can’t be rewritten in the next 20 years by some gutsy but perhaps unknown entrepreneurs? It is up to the doers. I sense a new industry is forming right in front of our eyes.
Some may argue that data is valuable only when there is a lot of it. There’s no point monetizing it if only some individuals demand full ownership. That argument may have validity but it forgets that we have rights as digital citizens. Perhaps our generation is already a lost cause when it comes to digital privacy and freedom. But I don’t want my children and their generation to repeat the same mistakes. We know better now. If we don’t ride on this wave and this moment to challenge the data status quo, we might regret it for the rest of our lives. The task is urgent and opportunity immense. It is now or never.
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