How much is your data worth?

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There is a saying that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Certainly, when it comes to those who will admit to the former, versus the latter, the saying is true. That being said, in the case of the recent rout in tech stocks, the number of un-admitted parents would keep even Maury Povich in business for years.

Yet, many of those parents have something in common. Whether it’s been the humiliating revelation that Google Plus exposed the data of hundreds of thousands of people (and then covered it up); or Facebook’s long standing headache over data mining of the kind conducted by Cambridge Analytica, the question of Americans’ privacy and of their right to ownership over the facts of their own lives, dominates.

Indeed, many of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies rely on Americans’ data to make a profit. This can take the form of everything from the relatively benign (like Amazon using search history to recommend other products), to the cringeworthy in retrospect (Netflix hiring Kevin Spacey as the lead in “House of Cards” thanks to data analytics), to the deeply worrisome (any of the above scandals). Whatever form it takes, though, a key policy question needs to be asked: Do Americans own their own data? And, more importantly, if they do, what’s it worth, exactly?

The first question is relatively easy: Do Americans own their own data? Obviously, yes, they do. If people don’t own their own lives, there is very little they can be said to own.

The Declaration of Independence identifies life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as three inalienable rights guaranteed to Americans. Most big data services implicate at least one of these — who among us, after all, can imagine search results bear no relation to the pursuit of happiness, or that what one says in the privacy of one’s own home near an Amazon Echo device has no potential implications for life and liberty? If I own my life, but not what I choose to do with that life, can I really be said to own my life at all? The answers to all these questions mutually reinforce the notion that Americans’ data is something inextricably connected to their identities, and their identities — that is, their personhood — cannot be taken without their consent.

But the price of that identity or the pieces of it that make up individual data points, should be, is another matter entirely. Pro-tech wonks and tech sector employees would no doubt argue that in providing their websites free of charge, giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Amazon, etc, are providing a price — not in money, but in services. Many of them would probably estimate the value of those services as quite high, and so argue that Americans who surrender their data to them voluntarily in exchange for their services are getting a fair trade.

It is not obvious that this argument is wrong, but neither is it obvious that it is right. Rather, it relies on two subsidiary arguments that seem debatable, at best. First, there is the argument that the services provided by tech companies can be highly valued. At best, this would depend heavily on which service we’re talking about. Social media use, for example, correlates with depression. One could easily argue that social media companies are imposing costs on their users, rather than giving them anything intrinsically valuable. What’s more, Google search results are often unreliable, even on non-politically charged topics like medicine. The idea that this is an acceptable price to pay for Google Maps tracking your every move or for risking the massive amount of data vacuumed up by Android phones being snatched in a hack, is very much a matter of opinion, rather than fact.

However, even if you concede that the services are valuable, there is a subsidiary question – namely, whether customers have a choice of whether to accept those services at all, if they want to participate in the modern economy. If there were more robust competition in the tech sector, then this premise would be much easier to prove, but except for video streaming services, this, too, is far from obvious. Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Twitter are each companies with either near-monopolistic or actually monopolistic power over their respective spheres — Amazon for online shopping, Google for search, Facebook for social networking, and Twitter for microblogging.

The Trump administration may be preparing an antitrust probe against these companies over monopolistic behavior. Though, if these companies can be said to be “buying” data with their services, it would be more accurate to call them monopsonies. Either way, the problem of choice looms large.

If even one of these questions goes the wrong way for the tech sector, then Americans may very well need legal recourse to make sure that the details of their private lives revealed in online behavior can be more efficiently priced in the market, and to make sure that tech companies pay them for the privilege of using that data for their massive, multinational, multibillion dollar endeavors.

These may not necessarily be high prices — one can easily imagine, for example, Android phone users receiving a small discount on their service in exchange for the right to use their data without continually asking for consent. Or, potentially, some sort of ad services kickback — kind pioneered by the Brave Browser.

But the details of people’s lives, consumption habits, travel habits and search histories are not costless. It’s highly important that the cost of renting access to all those things be properly assessed and paid. Otherwise, Americans’ rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness could end up with a worrying asterisk next to it: an asterisk that denotes that free human beings’ rights to stop their very lives being commodified are that much weaker in the modern age.

Mytheos Holt is a senior fellow in Freedom to Innovate at the Institute for Liberty.


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