Data Ownership and the Cost of ‘Free’ Digital Services

 The Facebook login screen. Photo: Getty Images.
The Facebook login screen. Photo: Getty Images.

Are people starting to realize how valuable their data is?

The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal was a wakeup call for many people. Since then, I’ve observed an ever-expanding collective awakening on data privacy globally. However, the link to the economic value of data created by individuals might still be unclear for most people. That said, the growing demand for protecting our privacy has started a powerful movement to answer the question of ‘how’.

When we dig into how the large tech companies generate their outsized profits using data from us, it becomes natural to question the value of our data, especially when it carries such intimate details of personal lives. Trading data between companies happens all the time. There is a market value of our privacy. If we genuinely care about our privacy, we need to start to ask: how much more do we want to give away for free?

What are the main problems with how data is currently valued and controlled?

Where do I start! There are too many problems in the current data status quo. But to highlight a few…

First, data ownership is overly centralized in several large tech companies’ hands, including several who suffer from a massive trust deficit. With Google, at least you could argue the services are quite useful. But with Facebook, it milks users’ attention and time on site, especially those who are psychologically vulnerable – often the youth and the elderly – by manipulating their vanity, insecurity, and loneliness. It is incredibly unethical.

Secondly, user data is routinely sold between companies and data brokerage is a multi-billion-dollar industry. However, when averaged to each individual, your privacy is sold for pennies, if not less. It’s not because individual’s data is worthless, but if you keep giving it away for free and have no say in the pricing/trading process, this is what you get.

Third, privacy is a personal and nuanced issue. Regulations such as GDPR are a good starting point to set a floor to protect consumers. However, GDPR is a regulation of prohibition instead of empowerment. How would any regulator know each individual’s tolerance of how much they prefer to reveal? Ultimately, we will need a mechanism that empowers individuals to make a choice based on their personal and nuanced needs and personal believes.

So, to leave the data control to the tech titans or hope it would be solved solely by the regulators are equally disconcerting.

Can greater ownership over personal data correct some of these imbalances?

When we discuss that individuals are entitled to their own data and have control of their privacy… most people have no idea how their data is generated, where it’s stored and how it’s sold. But everyone can understand if we start to discuss the economic value of our data.

That’s why I think putting individuals back to the income equation with data trade is a good starting point that everyone can understand and get behind. If there are enough people – and it’s a big if – that stop or reduce giving away data for free, we might be able to shift the power dynamic.

However, awareness alone is not enough. We need to create accessible tools that allow people to use services without giving away their data blindly and freely, and ultimately rewrite the data economy status quo.

Data ownership has several key aspects and being able to destroy it or sell it at your chosen price to a chosen buyer is crucial to our digital freedom.

Why is it so important to tackle this issue now?

All the tech titans have had an incredible run in the past two decades. We as the users were blindsided by the excitement of the capabilities of tech and went in [to use] those so-called ‘free services’ without thinking about the actual cost for us and our societies. Right in front of us, as we watch democracies threatened, children’s wellbeing damaged, individual privacy sold for political campaigns, it is now or never in terms of challenging the data status quo

Jennifer Zhu Scott, Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme and Jason Naselli, Senior Digital Editor.

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