You’ve probably heard the saying: if it’s free, then you are the product. And so we keep browsing, chatting, accepting cookies, not reading terms and conditions, and our digital selves live between the lines of code. Will that have consequences? Almost certainly, if legislation and regulations don’t keep up with the pace of tech giants turning us into algorithms. If our data is so valuable that it fuels multi-billion companies, some people started asking: should we give it up so easily and completely for free?
Selling your digital self
In 2020, one of the loud voices protesting the way data collection works belonged to Andrew Yang, a former presidential candidate. He launched his Data Dividend Project with a clear vision: it’s not fair that someone else makes money on our data. “Our current approach to data is this: it’s a free for all. Companies get our data the way they get our data, and then they sell it, package it, repackage it, resell it and we are on the outside looking in”, he said at Iowa Technology Summit.
Yang kept talking about data property as a right, empowering users and even allowing them to sell. “At this point, our data is more valuable than oil. If anyone benefits from our data, it should be us. I would make data a property right that each of us shares,” he explained on Twitter. He envisioned a world where Americans receive a payout for what they choose to share, and after the $20 or $100 appears in their PayPal accounts, they’ll tell their friends, and the idea spreads throughout the country.
Data privacy indeed is a future-defining issue, and Yang isn’t by any means the only one pushing it towards publicity. It’s beyond crucial to get the public excited about the topic, which was one of his goals, and help them navigate the abstract world of big data. It’s also clear that tech giants will need to be accountable for their actions through new laws.
How realistic is Yang’s plan to reimburse the users? Some data privacy rights experts have, quite harshly, concluded that it’s absolutely useless, and it would reinforce the existing power dynamics. On top of that, each individual’s data could cost significantly less than Yang suggests: a couple of dollars probably wouldn’t be worth the hassle.
Why giving up isn’t an option
We’ve established that figuring out the unprecedented territory of digital privacy is inevitable but incredibly complicated. A one-time payment probably won’t solve the enormous underlying issue – that without the right to privacy, we may become expendable.
Bryan Johnson, founder and CEO of Kernel, believes that it’s so essential that it needs to be a basic human right. If it doesn’t, the results could be catastrophic.
In an interview with Impact Theory, Johnson suggests that it’s only a matter of time until companies such as Google or Facebook can replicate us, which could lead to inequality we can’t even begin to imagine. “Once you predict someone’s value, that person no longer has value in society,” he said. That would lead to a division of society into two casts of people – those who can afford to pay for their privacy and “the predictables” who live in matrix-style algorithms.
On top of that, our data should be our privilege because its value increases over time, according to Johnson. Right now, you could take an old recording of someone’s voice and run it through an algorithm that could predict their mental health. “If you take that same data set and apply better algorithms tomorrow: can they tell that you are lying? Can they dissect your personality into 116 different classifiers? The point is, while people may think this is really far in the future, there’s already enough data out there on you through your videos and your writing that someone could probably create an extremely good avatar of you,” Johnson warns.
What does that mean? That this avatar can do your job, and you – the human – would no longer own your value.