Senators Want Facebook to Put a Price on Your Data. Is That Possible?

In these days of anti-tech ire, it’s a popular cocktail hour topic: How much is Facebook making off my data? Last year, I spent a month trying to find out, hawking my personal data on blockchain-based marketplaces. I came away with $0.003. On Monday, when Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia) announced a proposal to force tech companies to tell users the value of their data, he was slightly more generous, ballparking the average at $5 a month.

In truth, it’s probably only Facebook or Google (and their advertisers) who could hazard a good guess. “The cards are really stacked against us,” says David Carroll, a professor of media design at the New School known for his extensive quest to reclaim his Cambridge Analytica data.

Policymakers wrestling with the value of an individual’s data face a fundamental problem: While data often gets compared to oil, there’s no equivalent to benchmark crude for bits and bytes. The value is dependent on context: who has the data, where it’s going, who it came from. Beyond Warner’s bill, California Governor Gavin Newsom has mused about a “data dividend” through which residents would be paid for the data they generate for tech companies. Newsom acknowledged that it’s unclear what that check would look like.

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    Warner’s proposal, introduced with Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri), would require companies with more than 100 million monthly users to disclose the types of data they collect about each user and to assess its value. It also includes privacy rules similar to those passed last year in California, where you will soon be able to request to delete all or some data held by others, and opt out from having it sold. The Senate bill directs the Securities and Exchange Commission to figure out how companies should calculate that value, with flexibility for different business models and ways data is used. Best of luck to them.

    “There’s a little bit of a political scramble to get these ideas out there and it’s going ahead of anyone having an approach that makes sense,” says Glen Weyl, a senior researcher at Microsoft.

    The tech companies offer hints about our value, buried in financial reports. In the first quarter of 2019, for example, Facebook says it generated about $2 in revenue per month from advertising for each user. That’s the global figure. In the US, it’s just under $10. (Lucky us!)

    But the trick is figuring out what your data is worth to a given platform. That could be more or less, depending on things like how useful you are to the company’s ad-targeting algorithms and how valuable you are to the advertisers themselves. “Any attempts are going to be an artificial average or need to be sensitive to how the market is constantly valuing data,” says Carroll. The harsh reality is that you and I probably aren’t worth very much at all to Facebook or Twitter, at least not alone.

    Weyl, who has consulted with California lawmakers on the data dividend idea, suggests that banding together might help improve our lot. One method could involve mediators to help us negotiate collectively, he says—perhaps a kind of data union that could revoke access to our data if it can’t strike a good deal, or if our privacy is violated. Weyl says people can’t individually value their data and the labor that goes into producing it. If the company names a price, we don’t have the know-how (or the will, given how small the individual amounts will likely be) to argue otherwise. I learned that the hard way while acting as my own data broker.

    We’re all in this together, in other words. That’s all the more true given how data is used for targeting ads: It’s aggregated, mixed and matched, joined with data from elsewhere, repurposed in models used for artificial intelligence. In those cases, Warner leaves open the idea of “joint ownership” between the user and company—suggesting that only some of the value derived from your data is considered yours. That gets complicated, fast. “When data is transferred into models, it becomes an abstraction of your data,” says Carroll. Say there’s a medical trial based on health data from your phone. If you’re perfectly healthy or represent a common demographic for a medical trial, your data probably isn’t worth much to researchers. Should sick people get paid more for signing up? There are experimental ways of figuring out the value of one person’s data to a particular model, but they’re complicated to calculate, and have to be calculated independently for each model.

    Perhaps, in the end, the answer will be that simpler is better. Any hard figure to put on our individual data would be an important step forward, says Ashkan Soltani, a former chief technologist of the Federal Trade Commission, especially when it comes to holding companies accountable. “We have this constant issue in privacy that when there’s a data breach, companies argue that there’s no harm because information doesn’t necessarily have any value,” he says. “This [bill] would force companies to articulate that value.” One method might involve developing a value based on real-time bids for our attention from advertisers.

    Reaction from the tech industry to Warner and Hawley’s bill has been mixed. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, an industry-backed group, said the process of assigning a value to each user will “almost certainly irritate customers.” Still, Alan McQuinn, a senior analyst at ITIF, said that having the SEC hammer out a methodology would offer everyone welcome transparency, even if he doubted the process would be simple.

    In any case, whatever the exact value that gets assigned to our attention, perhaps a little more transparency will it remind us that “free” isn’t free, and get us thinking a little harder when we click “accept” on those privacy waivers. It’ll help if we have more options for what to do with our data. Having the option to delete it is one important step, Soltani notes, and Warner said he planned to soon introduce a bill that would make it easier to port data from one service to another. Eventually, users might find themselves with a bit more control.


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