What if people were paid for their data?

The Economist: “Data Slavery” Jennifer Lyn Morone, an American artist, thinks this is the state in which most people now live. To get free online services, she laments, they hand over intimate information to technology firms. “Personal data are much more valuable than you think,” she says. To highlight this sorry state of affairs, Ms Morone has resorted to what she calls “extreme capitalism”: she registered herself as a company in Delaware in an effort to exploit her personal data for financial gain. She created dossiers containing different subsets of data, which she displayed in a London gallery in 2016 and offered for sale, starting at £100 ($135). The entire collection, including her health data and social-security number, can be had for £7,000.

Only a few buyers have taken her up on this offer and she finds “the whole thing really absurd”. ..Given the current state of digital affairs, in which the collection and exploitation of personal data is dominated by big tech firms, Ms Morone’s approach, in which individuals offer their data for sale, seems unlikely to catch on. But what if people really controlled their data—and the tech giants were required to pay for access? What would such a data economy look like?…

Labour, like data, is a resource that is hard to pin down. Workers were not properly compensated for labour for most of human history. Even once people were free to sell their labour, it took decades for wages to reach liveable levels on average. History won’t repeat itself, but chances are that it will rhyme, Mr Weyl predicts in “Radical Markets”, a provocative new book he has co-written with Eric Posner of the University of Chicago. He argues that in the age of artificial intelligence, it makes sense to treat data as a form of labour.

To understand why, it helps to keep in mind that “artificial intelligence” is something of a misnomer. Messrs Weyl and Posner call it “collective intelligence”: most AI algorithms need to be trained using reams of human-generated examples, in a process called machine learning. Unless they know what the right answers (provided by humans) are meant to be, algorithms cannot translate languages, understand speech or recognise objects in images. Data provided by humans can thus be seen as a form of labour which powers AI. As the data economy grows up, such data work will take many forms. Much of it will be passive, as people engage in all kinds of activities—liking social-media posts, listening to music, recommending restaurants—that generate the data needed to power new services. But some people’s data work will be more active, as they make decisions (such as labelling images or steering a car through a busy city) that can be used as the basis for training AI systems….

But much still needs to happen for personal data to be widely considered as labour, and paid for as such. For one thing, the right legal framework will be needed to encourage the emergence of a new data economy. The European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation, which came into effect in May, already gives people extensive rights to check, download and even delete personal data held by companies. Second, the technology to keep track of data flows needs to become much more capable. Research to calculate the value of particular data to an AI service is in its infancy.

Third, and most important, people will have to develop a “class consciousness” as data workers. Most people say they want their personal information to be protected, but then trade it away for nearly nothing, something known as the “privacy paradox”. Yet things may be changing: more than 90% of Americans think being in control of who can get data on them is important, according to the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank….(More)”.