Getting Cash for Our Data Could Actually Make Things Worse

Microsoft researchers suggest ‘data dignity’ will create a better digital society, but some experts disagree

Joshua Adams
OneZero
Published in
9 min readOct 25, 2019

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Photo Illustration (Source: Getty/Images)

WWhat’s our data worth? No one’s quite sure, but a team at tech giant Microsoft is quite sure that we should be paid for it. In “A Blueprint for a Better Digital Society,” published in the Harvard Business Review, Microsoft researchers Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl propose a new tech concept called “data dignity.”

The basic premise of data dignity is that we should be paid for our data. By turning data into a form of property, we will be compensated for our data and be required to pay for services that require data from others. To make the process more transparent and bridge the gap between tech giants and individual users, groups of volunteers called MIDs (mediators of individual data) would negotiate data royalties or wages, engage in collective bargaining, and form industry standards, among other tasks.

This would spark what Lanier calls an “entrepreneurial democracy,” where individuals become more-equal actors in the marketplace, as opposed to just being surveilled for ad revenue and profit. In this model, we would pay to use Facebook, but Facebook would pay us as well, which would give people a modest, continuous stream of income.

Lanier and Weyl believe that our current model — one where the public uses free services in exchange for targeted advertising derived from surveillance, and where tech companies partner with third parties to optimize and, therefore, manipulate consumer behavior — is both undesirable and unsustainable. With data dignity as an alternative model, they hope to replace surveillance capitalism with direct buying and selling, allowing platforms to grow and thrive in a market of true competition, and to restore dignity to us, the data creators.

Tech companies make billions from our data. Why shouldn’t we be compensated, especially for our loss of privacy?

Lanier also argues that data dignity will help eliminate the economic incentive tech companies have to facilitate outrage engagement (since outrage reliably generates the…

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Joshua Adams
OneZero

Joshua Adams is a writer from Chicago. UVA & USC. Assistant Professor at Columbia College Chicago. Twitter: @ProfJoshuaA