If personal data is actually a commodity, can you buy some from another person, as if that person were a fruit stand? Would you want to?
Not yet. Or maybe not really.
Either way, that’s the idea behind the urge by some lately to claim personal data as personal property, and then to make money (in cash, tokens or cryptocurrency) by selling or otherwise monetizing it. The idea in all these cases is to somehow participate in existing (entirely extractive) commodity markets for personal data.
ProjectVRM, which I direct, is chartered to “foster development of tools and services that make customers both independent and better able to engage,” and is a big tent. That’s why on the VRM Developments Work page of the ProjectVRM wiki is a heading called Markets for Personal Data. Listed there are:
So we respect that work. We also need to recognize some problems it faces.
The first problem is that, economically speaking, data is a public good, meaning non-rivalrous and non-excludable. (Rivalrous means consumption or use by one party prevents the same by another, and excludable means you can prevent parties that don’t pay from access to it.) Here’s a table from a Linux Journal column I wrote a few years ago:
||Private good: good: e.g., food, clothing, toys, cars, products subject to value-adds between first sources and final customers
||Common pool resource: e.g., sea, rivers, forests, their edible inhabitants and other useful contents
||Club good: e.g., bridges, cable TV, private golf courses, controlled access to copyrighted works
||Public good: e.g., data, information, law enforcement, national defense, fire fighting, public roads, street lighting
The second problem is that nature of data as a public good also inconveniences claims that it ought to be property. Thomas Jefferson explained this in his 1813 letter to Isaac MacPherson:
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation
Of course Jefferson never heard of data. But what he says about “the thinking power called an idea,” and how ideas are like fire, is essential in a very human way.
The third problem is that all of us as human beings are able to produce forms of value that far exceed that of our raw personal data.
Specifically, treating data as if it were a rivalrous and excludable commodity—such as corn, oil or fruit—not only takes Jefferson’s “thinking power” off the table, but misdirects attention, investment and development work away from supporting the human outputs that are fully combustible, and might be expansible over all space, without lessening density. Ideas can do that. Oil can’t, even though it’s combustible.
Put another way, why would you want to make almost nothing (the likely price) selling personal data on a commodity basis when you can make a lot more by selling your work where markets for work exist?
What makes us fully powerful as human beings is our ability to generate and share ideas and other combustible public goods, and not just to slough off data like so much dandruff. Or to be valued only for the labors we contribute as parts of industrial machines.
Important note: I’m not knocking labor here. Most of us have to work for wages as parts of industrial machines, or as independent actors. I do too. There is full honor in that. Yet our nature as distinctive and valuable human beings is to be more and other than a source of labor alone, and there are ways to make money from that fact too.
Many years ago JP Rangaswami (@jobsworth) and I made a distinction between making money with something and because of something. It’s a helpful one.
Example: I don’t make money with this blog. But I do make money because of it—and probably a lot more money than I would if this blog carried advertising or if I did it for a wage.
Which gets us to the idea behind declaring personal data as personal property, and creating marketplaces where people can sell their data.
The idea goes like this: there is a $trillion or more in business activity that trades or relies on personal data in many ways. Individual sources of that data should be able to get in on the action.
Alas, most of that $trillion is in what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism: a giant snake-ball of B2B activity wherein there is little interest in buying what can be had for free.
Worse, surveillance capitalism’s business is making guesses about you so it can sell you shit. On a per-message basis, this works about 0% of the time, even though massive amounts of money flow through that B2B snakeball (visualized as abstract rectangles here and here). Many reasons for that. Here are a few:
- Most of the time, such as right here and now, you’re not buying a damn thing, and not in a mood to be bothered by someone telling you what to buy.
- Companies paying other companies to push shit at you do not have your interests at heart—not even if their messages to you are, as they like to put it, “relevant” or “interest based.” (Which they almost always are not.)
- The entrails of surveillance capitalism are fully infected with fraud and malware.
- Surveillance capitalism is also quite satisfied to soak up to 97% of an advertising spend before an ad’s publisher gets its 3% for pushing an ad at you.
Trying to get in on that business is just an awful proposition.
Yes, I know it isn’t just surveillance capitalists who hunger for personal data. The health care business, for example, can benefit enormously from it, and is less of a snakeball, on the whole. But what will it pay you? And why should it pay you?
Won’t large quantities of anonymized personal data from iOS and Android devices, handed over freely, be more valuable to medicine and pharma than the few bits of data individuals might sell? (Apple has already ventured in that direction, very carefully, also while not paying for any personal data.)
And isn’t there something kinda suspect about personal data for sale? Such as motivating the unscrupulous to alter some of their data so it’s worth more?
What fully matters for people in the digital world is agency, not data. Agency is the power to act with full effect in the world. It’s what you have when you put your pants on, when you walk, or drive, or tell somebody something useful while they listen respectfully. It’s what you get when you make a deal with an equal.
It’s not what any of us get when we’re just “users” on a platform. Or when we click “agree” to one-sided terms the other party can change and we can’t. Both of those are norms in Web 2.0 and desperately need to be killed.
It’s still early. Web 2.0 is an archaic stage in the formation of the digital world. surveillance capitalism has also been a bubble ready to pop for years. The matter is when, not if. It’s too absurd, corrupt, complex and annoying to keep living forever.
So let’s give people ways to increase their agency, at scale, in the digital world. There’s no scale in selling one’s personal data. But there’s plenty in putting our most human of powers to work.
The most basic form of agency in the digital world is control over how our personal data might be used by others. There are lots of developers at work on this already. Here’s one list at ProjectVRM.