15 Oct Opinion | We Talked to Andrew Yang. Hereâs How Heâd Fix…
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This weekâs Privacy Project newsletter is a pre-debate conversation with the former entrepreneur and current presidential candidate Andrew Yang. I wanted to speak to Yang since heâs the only candidate to address data privacy as a campaign policy issue. Heâs a proponent of an idea thatâs somewhat controversial among privacy professionals, which is that we should own our own data.
Our short conversation turned out to be pretty sprawling, touching on subjects like data dignity, whether Facebook should be able to run political ads, whether any of us have free will and what his proposed Department of the Attention Economy might look like.
This is a condensed and edited version of our conversation:
Youâre the only candidate who has decided to make privacy a campaign issue. Howâd you get there?
Iâm an avid user of the internet and I understand that users are completely at the mercy of tech companies in terms of what happens to our data. They pretend itâs our choice. In reality, 99.9 percent of people scroll down and hit âI agree.â The trade weâre making is for cost and convenience, but in return weâre forfeiting our data.
That data is packaged and sold and resold and we are none the wiser. We occasionally get notifications of a data breach and think, âOh, snap, should I change my password?â Thatâs an irritation but whatâs going on with our data is much bigger than that.
I was talking to a researcher recently and she described a concept called data dignity, which I thought really says it all. Right now weâre being systematically deprived of our dignity and we think it is fine because weâre getting these incredible services. Perhaps that worked in the early stages of the internet. But now weâre waking up to the fact that the trade is much more serious and profound than we originally realized.
Your idea is to think less in terms of privacy and more in terms of property â that all this data we shed earns money for big tech companies, so we should receive a share of the economic value generated from that data. You never explicitly say we should get paid for it. Do you think we should be getting that money back in the form of a data dividend?
Yes, I think we should be getting paid in a data dividend. Every time we post a photo or interact with a social media company weâre putting information out there and that information should still be ours. If somebody is profiting from our data and we decide willingly to partner with a company thatâs making use of this information, then thatâs only fair as long as we get a slice. Right now weâre unaware of the value thatâs changing hands and weâre definitely not getting a data check in the mail every season.
There are plenty of critiques when it comes to owning our own data. The first is that our data is shared (a conversation on social media, for example, has two participants) so itâs hard to parse out who owns what. Also, the notion of how scores of companies pay out data dividends to millions of Americans is a logistical nightmare. Is it worth the hassle?
Itâs actually a fairly trivial administrative barrier in the sense that almost half of Americans are right now receiving direct transfers from the government in some form, via checks or deposits. I guarantee you that if it was reversed and it was tech companies that needed to extract tolls from millions of consumers thereâd be zero issue with the administrative barrier. The company would be like, âI need your credit card.â
One of the more substantial critiques of data ownership is that if you treat data as purely a property right, it means that you can sell that right. If we treat privacy as a property right what that means is that we essentially have that right to trade it. And the problem is that it could worsen financial inequities. People with less income might be more willing to trade their important personal data for a small payment, while those who are better off can say, âI donât need the dividend. Iâll keep my data.â How do you balance that?
Thereâd be less of a sense of desperation in a society where thereâs a freedom dividend and everyoneâs getting $1,000 per month. But it is the case that certain peopleâs data is worth more than othersâ data. And if you look right now there are many people with different preferences. There are people out there choosing to share the intimate details of their lives with millions of people; some make a living off it. So, if individuals want to share their data or information or even their private lives with other people, then thatâs their prerogative.
Some of the plans you outline for data are quite broad and amount to âData needs to be owned by the people.â Some companies already subscribe to this but, in practice, weâre still at their mercy. Does the extent of your plan amount to more than just saying, âYou can have your data deleted?â
Whatâs going to happen in real life is youâre going to use these companies. Things will happen behind the scenes while youâre busy living your life. And then, if you want to, you can go and delete your data. Thatâs a reasonable estimation of how it would work for many people. What Iâm suggesting is that we can do better. But itâs not like individual consumers can band together to make this happen. Government needs to be a counterweight to the massive power and information inequities between us and the technology companies.
What I think most people would want is a place they could go to see whatâs happening to their data, the option to delete their data and a record or log of all the times it trades hands. Then the companies do their thing and people would live with greater confidence that, if there are abuses, theyâll be made aware…