I’m not going to bury the lead. The answer is “yes,” you would sell your data, and in fact you already do. The more difficult and nuanced questions to answer are: Exactly how much is it worth, and do you have a choice? In the U.S., this topic is being argued among big tech, consumer advocacy groups, the federal government and states. (The EU has already taken a big step in this regard by implementing The General Data Protection Regulation—which is its own can of worms to discuss another day.) The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, released in September of 2020, highlighted the ethical and financial stakes in a way that many found to be shocking. (If you haven’t seen it, see it.)
What data is out there?
Even restricting this to only legally acquired data (which is a big caveat—remember the Equifax Data Breach), you might be surprised at what’s out there. Yes, we all know that everything we do on Facebook, Instagram and social media is stored and…shared. We recognize that what we search for is fed back to us in more targeted ads across the web. But did you know Google is “reading” your emails for data and keywords? Did you also know that many extremely popular browser extensions track and sell your browser history? One company even uses AI to scrape the web for public photos, amassing a database of searchable faces for federal and state law enforcement. Your online data is now mapped to your face.
The California Privacy Rights Act of 2020 (CPRA).
California, with the help of many consumer advocacy groups, has passed CPRA, the most aggressive act in the United States, set to take effect on January 1, 2023. In the meantime, the state is still governed by the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). Passed in 2018 and effective as of January 1, 2020, it is also the most far-reaching privacy act in the U.S. to date. In a nutshell, these laws are meant to give consumers access to their data on request, the option to delete the data, the option to opt-out of selling their data and rights to non-discrimination. Many companies are opting to offer these rights to all Americans, and some states are looking into adopting similar measures. However, the five biggest tech companies are still exploiting loopholes by claiming that “sharing” our data is not “selling” our data. It’s in their interest to define it this way; otherwise, their business models have to change.
What is it worth?
Presidential candidate Andrew Yang created the Data Dividend Project, with the intent of requiring companies to pay for the data they sell. According to their site, the industry is as big as $200 billion annually. But even they don’t put a number on the individual. Facebook claims the average profit per user is $7.05 per quarter. Maybe when we add up all the dividends, I might have my monthly Netflix subscription paid for one day. Or is it worth more?
The truth is, your data is worth $0 (to you).
It’s worth hundreds of billions to big tech. How much would you pay to be totally private online? It’s a surprisingly personal question. Currently, we pay in exchange for privacy. California and the EU are off to a good start, and when consumers decide they want change, it’s off to the races.