What kind of world do we want? (or, why regulation matters)

I saw a thread on Mastodon recently, which included this image:

Three images with the title 'Space required to Transport 48 People'. Each image is the same, with cars backed up down a road. The caption for each image is 'Car', 'Electric Car' and 'Autonomous Car', respectively.

Someone else replied with a meme showing a series of images with the phrase “They feed us poison / so we buy their ‘cures’ / while they ban our medicine”. The poison in this case being cars burning fossil fuels, the cures being electric and/or autonomous cars, and the medicine public transport.

There’s similar kind of thinking in the world of tech, with at least one interviewee in the documentary The Social Dilemma saying that people should be paid for their data. I’ve always been uneasy about this, so it’s good to see the EFF come out strongly against it:

Let’s be clear: getting paid for your data—probably no more than a handful of dollars at most—isn’t going to fix what’s wrong with privacy today. Yes, a data dividend may sound at first blush like a way to get some extra money and stick it to tech companies. But that line of thinking is misguided, and falls apart quickly when applied to the reality of privacy today. In truth, the data dividend scheme hurts consumers, benefits companies, and frames privacy as a commodity rather than a right.

EFF strongly opposes data dividends and policies that lay the groundwork for people to think of the monetary value of their data rather than view it as a fundamental right. You wouldn’t place a price tag on your freedom to speak. We shouldn’t place one on our privacy, either.

Hayley Tsukayama, Why Getting Paid for Your Data Is a Bad Deal (EFF)

As the EFF points out, who would get to set the price of that data, anyway? Also, individual data is useful to companies, but so is data in aggregate. Is that covered by such plans?

Facebook makes around $7 per user, per quarter. Even if they gave you all of that, is that a fair exchange?

Those small checks in exchange for intimate details about you are not a fairer trade than we have now. The companies would still have nearly unlimited power to do what they want with your data. That would be a bargain for the companies, who could then wipe their hands of concerns about privacy. But it would leave users in the lurch.

All that adds up to a stark conclusion: if where we’ve been is any indication of where we’re going, there won’t be much benefit from a data dividend. What we really need is stronger privacy laws to protect how businesses process our data—which we can, and should do, as a separate and more protective measure.

Hayley Tsukayama, Why Getting Paid for Your Data Is a Bad Deal (EFF)

As the rest of the article goes on to explain, we’re already in a world of ‘pay for privacy’ which is exacerbating the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. We need regulation and legislation to curb this before it gallops away from us.


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  1. I also don’t think that a data dividend would be the solution, nor that data should become a commodity.

    However, I think adding something like that would prevent a lot of abuse. Imagine if it weren’t free to use tracking pixels and such. There’s a recent Akimbo episode where Seth Godin talks about something similar to this called “Paying for Stamps” (or “Email Matters” in the website). I don’t think it is feasible to put something like that into practice, but I think it’s good food for thought.

    I agree that regulations are the solution, but it’s also true that the core issue with the current landscape is incentives. There are incentives for companies to gather personal data, because data is valuable. Things like GDPR are a good step forward, but in a lot of cases that’s been translated into annoying popups and companies like Google and Facebook continue gathering personal data everywhere. If the system itself didn’t reward this behaviour, things would be different. But we’re still in the infancy of privacy regulations. Let’s see how things are 10, 20 years down the line.

    • Hi Noel! Yes, I listened to that episode of Seth Godin’s podcast too. It felt convincing as I heard him speak, but on reflection felt like retro-fitting a payment system to something that “wants” to be free. Ultimately, we’re talking about trust here, and its difficult to do trust at scale. For a while, it seemed that people thought that trustless systems (e.g. blockchain) would solve that, but again it was money (i.e. cryptocurrency) as a workaround.

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