Frustrated because it occurred to you to look at a model of online sneakers and now you can not stop seeing the announcement of these sneakers on all the websites you visit? Tired of that uncomfortable feeling that every search you do in Google is stored in some hidden server? Tired of saying Yes to everything every time you download an app and they force you to approve an endless list of conditions? Welcome to the world of the internet user: it seems that if you want to continue using whatever you have managed to become essential for your daily life you will have to apechugar with someone, somewhere, doing something with your data. And getting rich with it.
California comes to the rescue. Not to avoid the inevitable exchange of data in exchange for access, but yes, at least so that your part of the cake touches you. "Your personal data has a value in the market, and it is something that belongs to you," he said on February 12. in his inaugural speech the newly elected governor of California, Gavin Newsom. With this phrase he has put on the table an idea that has been circulating for some time without actually materializing: introducing a law of dividends that acts as a corrective in a market that is still not regulated, that of personal data. That forces companies whose business model is based on measuring tastes, intentions, consumption patterns and even physical location, to distribute the wealth that such data generates.
The organization Common Sense Media has already confirmed that they are working on the drafting of the future law. "We fully support the governor's commitment to propose a law that establishes a distribution of benefits in exchange for the value of personal data of users, and in the coming weeks we hope to introduce legislation on this," he explains to EL PAÍS RETINA. CEO Jim Steyer. Common Sense Media, headquartered in California, is the organization that drafted the Law on Protection of Online Personal Data for Minors in 2014 and has just obtained the approval of one of the most restrictive data protection laws in the countrys (although less than that of the EU), which will come into force in California in 2020.
The main difficulty at the time of writing this new law is to define what it means to benefit with data, what companies do it, and how much is that benefit. "The idea of charging companies in exchange for giving them our data is not new, as in the nineties there were economists who raised it, like Kenneth Laudon", explains Alessandro Acquisti, professor of information technology and public policies of the University Carnegie Mellon. "But the consumer data market is very complex and it is not easy to define with certainty what the costs are, what the benefits are and who benefits. It's very opaque. " Above all, because it is not just a direct purchase-sale, say, between platforms that collect personal data from their users and other companies that pay for this data. It is much more complex.
The state of Washington faced these difficulties two years ago, when it began drafting a similar law that sought to create a tax of 3.3% for companies that trade data. "Right away we realized that before deciding what the tax would be, we had to understand well which companies are part of this data market," explains state congresswoman Norma Smith, who proposed the legislation. "One thing is the companies that come to a direct agreement with the user, and that present a long list of conditions that the user accepts. Another very different are the data brokers, those unknown companies that have no direct relationship with the consumer and buy or sell data packages without the consumer having given their consent or even know that they are doing so. "
Smith modified his approach, and introduced legislation (the law HB 1503) that focuses, for the moment, on creating a mandatory registry for all those data brokers, and is now being processed. The state of Vermont has just passed a similar law. According to experts in cybersecurity, the number of these data agents can be around 4000, and it continues to grow exponentially. "Once we know who they are, that there is more transparency and the user understands what they are doing with their data, we can move on to discuss how to establish a tax or a more just economic relationship," says Smith. And before that, he says: "You always have to make sure you have the possibility to refuse to give that information. One thing is that you accept to give them to a company that offers a service that compensates you, another is to sell or buy that data without giving you anything in return. In this country we believe in free market, but it has to be voluntary ".
The main difficulty lies in defining what it means to benefit from data, what companies do it, and how much that benefit is.
A union of internet users
"There are two ways in which companies profit from user data: one is by selling personalized advertising (targeted advertisement, that is, ads directed to each user according to their tastes and searches) and another is accumulating information that allows them to teach computers artificial intelligence, "explains Glen Weyl Retina, professor of economics at Princeton who participates in the drafting of the law. "The law we are preparing wants to create the rules for a more equal power relationship between the companies that collect this data and the users that provide it. Support the creation of user groups that can negotiate economic compensation directly. "
Glen Weyl (also a researcher at Microsoft) and law professor Eric Posner, have written the book together Radical exchange, in which they advocate a kind of great revolution of workers / users to force digital monopolies to compensate for the transfer of their data. Its approach goes beyond personal data: it affects all the interactions that users have with their applications, because each of them has the potential to serve algorithms to improve themselves. With them, users are collaborating to a great collective work that will end up resulting in much more powerful and capable machines that, hopefully, will modify forever our current economic system.
Others gurus like Jaron Lanier They have explored the idea. Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook, recently defended by a direct tax, similar to that used in Alaska to distribute the benefits of oil extraction. According to Hughes, a tax of 5% on each company that benefits from the use of personal data of its users (and here would include not only Facebook or Google, but also banks, big clothing chains or insurance companies) could suppose some $ 100,000 million annually throughout the United States, which, divided among each of the United States citizens, would imply a check of $ 400 per year per adult. In France, where a similar law is about to be approved, lawmakers estimate that they will raise 500 million euros. But the French law does not establish a direct impact on every citizen, or every internet user, this money.
A new economic relationship
California law, explains Weyl, will attempt to pave the way for a future direct economic relationship between data providers (the user) and those who collect them (technology companies). More than a direct tax of a certain percentage in this type of companies, Weyl believes that the law should establish mechanisms to give users the power to negotiate. He draws a parallel with the wage system in the labor market. Just as you can not define the monetary value of a worker in a production chain, for example, a factory, you can not establish how much each of our interactions contributes in each of the online platforms that register them. The solution, in the case of the production chain, is a salary. And in the case of the Internet, it can be the same: an economic agreement that allows the user (the worker) compensation for what contributes to the growth of the company.
But Californians should not expect a check in the mail tomorrow. "The labor market took years to establish rights, it was necessary to create unions. Now we are starting to do it in the digital world. I hope we do not take so long, "says Weyl, who warns that the legislation being drafted is going to be more" a step in the right direction ", but far from it, the final one.
The big companies based in Silicon Valley have not said at the moment this mouth is mine. But presumably the idea will not make them very happy and they will defend themselves with their teeth and teeth. "There are dominant companies that already control most (if not all) of the consumer data, and have no incentive to release that control and return it to the user," Acquisti argues. "I believe that the main obstacle, once the law is drafted, will be the economic interests of giant companies that already have control over these data." "The great technologists will not be able to keep dragging their feet. People want answers He wants more transparency. And laws like this favor transparency, favor establishing a more honest measurement of how much each one contributes and how much we deserve to receive each one in return, "says Weyl.
For now, the law has yet to be drafted. But it already points to an end to the idyll between Sacramento and Silicon Valley. Recent polls confirm that Newsom has hit the nail on the head when it comes to public opinion: 45% of voters (both Republicans and Democrats) would support a law that would force companies to share a portion of their profits. But for better or for worse, what happens in California will have consequences throughout the country, and even in the rest of the world if we take into account the size of its economy and the fact that most of the technological firms affected by the future law have been founded and continue to operate from here.