Date posted: 21/02/2019 8 min read

We’re digital serfs in data’s dark ages

The printing revolution brought intellectual property rights. Should the digital revolution bring the right to personal data ownership?

In Brief

  • In the age of digital feudalism, allowing platforms to collect our data and selling it to actors such as ad agencies is a highly lucrative practice.
  • Personal data ownership would spur the emergence of a personal data market, with 3.7b Internet users claiming remuneration.
  • Some political campaigners now advocate that users treat their data as property, as they would with their houses.

By Gaspard Koeing

During the High Medieval Period, from the 11th to the 13th century, serfs in France had no property rights. Instead, those with land had to hand over most of what they produced to the local lord, who could confiscate their land on their death. In return, they received services, such as protection from conflict and access to a mill or village oven.

They had little choice: opting out of the deal and, say, building their own mill would have been forbidden. This dynamic arrangement – which continued until the French Revolution, when peasants gained full property rights – looks a lot like consumers’ relationships with internet firms today.

In this age of digital feudalism, we have little choice but to agree, with one click, to an impenetrably long and convoluted set of terms and conditions, which subjects us to constant monitoring by the platforms we use. The platforms collect our personal data and sell them to many more actors, including advertising companies that can then serve us targeted ads.

For internet firms, this is a highly lucrative practice. The value of users’ personal data is expected to reach 1 trillion euros, or 8% of European GDP, by 2020 according to the European Commission. In exchange, the firms offer “free services”, such as social media, to the digital serfs who produce the data.

This is not a ‘sharing economy’, but an optimised extractive economy – based on the near-infinite availability of raw material (our personal data) – that enriches a few companies at the expense of consumers. And, just like the economy of the High Medieval Period, it is ripe to be revolutionised through property rights.

“The platforms collect our personal data and sell them to many more actors, including advertising companies that can then serve us targeted ads”
Gaspard Koeing

Making data your personal property

Gaspard KoeningGaspard Koeing

Property rights have protected and empowered individuals for millennia, evolving as technology does. For example, the printing revolution brought intellectual property rights, and the Industrial Revolution popularised the patent system.

What the digital revolution must bring is the right to personal data ownership, including the classic elements of property rights: usus (I use my data as I wish), abusus (I destroy my data as I wish, without any fancy “right to be forgotten”), and fructus (I sell my data for profit if I wish).

Personal data ownership would spur the emergence of a personal-data market, with some of the world’s 3.5 billion internet users claiming remuneration for sharing their data, according to the value they produce.

Other users, prioritising privacy over profit, would pay a fair market price to benefit from a service anonymously. This is what the US tech executive Sheryl Sandberg was hinting at in an April 2018 interview with NBC News, when she suggested that a full-blown opt-out from data collection on Facebook would be a ‘paid product’.

The change would be profound, and the practical challenges could be overcome with existing technological solutions. For example, to support data management, users could each have a smart account that stores the information and the contractual conditions for its use. As for pricing, intermediaries would likely emerge to negotiate directly with the big platforms on behalf of millions of users, leading over time to the creation of a proper marketplace.

The benefits of not sharing

Effective legal implementation of the right to personal data ownership will certainly take work. Yet personal data ownership remains a more rational and realistic solution than other approaches that have been put forward, such as the right to “informational self-determination” established by Germany’s constitutional court in 1983.

The potential benefits of giving individuals more control over their digital lives extend beyond economic fairness. Such a system could also crack open the filter bubbles that have arisen as a result of social-media algorithms, which show users content that reinforces their existing biases and beliefs. In this sense, personal data ownership could help to ease the dangerous political polarisation that now afflicts many countries.

Today, not a single legal system recognises personal data ownership. But the idea is gaining ground all over the world.

Data as property

Brittany Kaiser – an executive-turned-whistleblower at Cambridge Analytica, the political data firm that allegedly misused users’ data from Facebook and other platforms to influence political campaigns – now advocates that users treat their data as property, just like their houses.

Owning a house doesn’t make you a greedy real-estate speculator; it allows you to participate fully in what American philosopher John Rawls called a “property-owning democracy”. The same goes for data.

In France, the think tank I created, GenerationLibre, issued a 150-page report on personal data ownership, which prompted a fierce public debate. At the European level, the General Data Protection Regulation, which came into force in May 2018, prepares the ground for property rights by guaranteeing the portability of personal data.

In the US, the author and researcher Glen Weyl, together with virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier and others, recently argued that data should be treated (and remunerated) as labour. (I would prefer to treat data as capital, as they originate from our self-owned personality, but this is essentially just semantics.) And, on a practical level, a growing number of start-ups are developing data-monetisation services.

In his book Homo Deus, the historian Yuval Noah Harari anticipates the advent of “dataism”, whereby personal free will is sacrificed at the altar of the algorithm. But humans do not have to be at the mercy of data flows. By establishing personal data ownership, the very notion of individuality could be fortified, bolstering the liberal values that have made our civilisation succeed.

Gaspard Koenig is a philosopher and founder and president of GenerationLibre, a Paris-based independent think tank aiming to promote freedom.

Avaliable from the CA Library: Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari.

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