Making the data economy work for companies and people

Making the data economy work for companies and people
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Advertisers and even more nefarious actors have been using our data against us for years. In the pre-internet days, the data in the form of census and other forms was used in advertising, actuarial science, medicine, and other domains in which population-based knowledge was key to the efficacy of the activity at hand. And we were OK with it.

The process was slow, detached, and vague enough that it never felt overly intrusive. But along the way, we crossed a line where the speed, accuracy, and ramifications of our data started to feel like a violation. Maybe because the magnitude of the usage is so much broader and the societal-level manipulation has become that much more apparent. In the early digital days, you might have bought a laundry detergent you would not have otherwise. Now, the stakes have escalated to a geo-political level. Elections are won, and money — lots of it — is being made, all at the expense of our personal information. Who and what are protecting us? As citizens of the global data economy, we need a data bill of rights with real financial implications.


Our data, our choice


Let’s return to data and the implications of recent national elections. With Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, it’s possible we’re hypocrites or at best naive. Political elections have always been exploitive of social leanings. The last U.S. election, for example, wasn’t substantially different from previous contests, other than the efficacy with which particular sides used technology to rally support. What happened recently though, à la Cambridge Analytica, was done spectacularly well. Courts will decide if there was anything illegal, while public opinion and history will decide if it was ethical.

Lurking behind these questions — about whether elections represent popular sentiment — lies powerful data. We’re upset about how our data is used against our wishes, but should the outrage stop there? Our data is monetized in ways that sometimes benefit us, but we’re never rewarded for it. (Though maybe that laundry detergent is now following me around the internet and suddenly on sale.) We have protections guarding our medical information and some of our children’s privacy, but generally all information is largely available to advertisers, retailers and even foreign entities.

Introducing the Data Bill of Rights

Forget philosophical arguments. What we should all care about is compensation. Specifically, we should all participate in the monetization of our own data. Our data is our product, it is a part of us, and we should demand our data emancipation. Core to this is a Data Bill of Rights, which would state unequivocally that not only all uses of personal data are determined by us but all benefits of our data accrue to us. We would also demand complete transparency of the distribution of our data.

The EU is already steps ahead with the upcoming GDPR. But what I’m talking about takes things a step further.

An important element of the Data Bill of Rights is it should work at the point of data distribution and usage, not upfront. That is, it’s too easy to waive user license agreement rights when someone first signs up for a service; the effects are imaginary at that point, and it’s unreasonable for an average person to forecast probabilities of misuse. Instead, consent around data usage should be granted on a per-request basis. The “rents” on the data should be accrued to the creator, or shared between the creator and the distributor. Blockchain technology could help restrict, control and track access to this data.

We can only expect better behavior by forcing the distributors of our data, like Facebook, to share in the fees generated and to be heavily penalized in violation of new data laws.

Note that I understand I can turn off Facebook or any other opt-in service that may misuse my data. The point is that companies can run untargeted ads, or they need to share in the profits derived from the data of everyone who doesn’t opt in at the point of monetization.

Data of the people, for the people, by the people

The Data Bill of Rights offers an economic solution to a social problem without hampering user experience or limiting the social benefits of networking. Without specific laws protecting user data and criminalizing breaches of what would become a financial contract in the U.S., it’s difficult to imagine a solution to today’s data problem.

Whether you’re on Facebook or Snapchat or searching on Google, your data is out there. Someone is making money off of it, and you’re not.

Who’s with me?

James Markarian is chief technology officer at SnapLogic, a Silicon Valley data and application integration company. He is the former CTO of Informatica and previously held leadership roles at Khosla Ventures and Oracle.