By now it is commonly understood that free online services such as social media, search engines, and emails are not actually that free. Instead, we use those services in exchange for data about who we are and what we want, which can then be used to show us highly targeted advertising or even just sold to third-party companies. Our very identities are now the most valuable object in the world and we give it to tech giants every single day.
That’s why there is a growing movement among some lawmakers to make companies pay consumers for the data they use. Data dividends, as it’s called, is now being pushed by politicians like Andrew Yang and California governor Gavin Newsom who argue that, by ensuring companies are paying users for their data, consumers will be empowered to take more control of their online identity and privacy.
The problem, however, is once you take a closer look at the concept Yang and Government Newsom are pushing, it becomes clear that this project, which is meant to promote privacy, ends up reinforcing a system that commodifies consumer data and disincentives privacy-first practices. We are treading a dangerous path if we attempt to monetize identity.
Here is why:
Paying consumers for their data doesn’t protect their privacy. Instead it ends up justifying the current practice of data mining that undermines the right to privacy. Certain companies are already using similar practices. Amazon, for example, offered $25 Amazon gift cards for full body 3D scans of their users. It’s a dramatic example, but fundamentally equivalent to what lawmakers are now proposing.
The concept of privacy is literally a human right and as such cannot be bought and sold in a free and open society. It’s like saying that companies can take away your right of free expression so long as they compensate you for it. Making money off of and sharing user data with third-parties has already been normalized by tech companies, and data dividends only further validates these practices.
This isn’t to say that distributing the money earned from personal information back to the consumer is necessarily a bad thing, it’s simply an issue entirely separate from privacy. If companies are required to give out data dividends, it would in no way lessen the importance of ensuring the privacy of our identities and data.