Companies make billions off your data. You should be getting paid

Young man on computer
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On Monday, President Trump signed into law a rollback of internet privacy rules in a decision widely condemned by Democrats and privacy advocates. Opposition to the bill centered on one flawed – though admirable – argument, namely that Corporate America should not be allowed to snoop on people's digital lives.

But make no mistake, this law has nothing to do with privacy. Instead, it has everything to do with answering a question that will shape America's economy in the 21st century.

Who should profit from the tech revolution?

(Spoiler alert: unless we do something about it, the answer will not be you.)

To understand why, think about how most of us participate in the economy. In short, our fundamental value is based on what we do. As in, you're a mechanic and you fix cars. You're a doctor and you fix people.

You're a Russian and you fix elections.

In exchange for what we do, we expect something in return. In modern times, that's usually a wage, a retainer, or salary. In years gone by, it was housing, food, or a chance to shop at the company store.

More or less, this is how humans have operated for as long as we've had economic systems. However, in the past 20 years, the game has radically changed. No longer is our value just about doing. Increasingly, it's about simply being.

To explain, take a moment to reflect on the act of reading this article. As you scroll down the page, the website's owners are watching – and collecting data. How much time are you spending on the article? Once you finish, what essay or website will you visit next?

Meanwhile, the device you're using is registering and saving much of this same data. It's also geo-tracking your location. (And if the device isn't, the apps are).

Finally, your internet service provider (ISP) wants to make sure that it too can gobble up personal information as you download movies or stream music.

"Why do all of these companies want such specific details about your habits? After all, tech enthusiasts have labeled this data as data exhaust – not exactly suggestive of something important. Contrary to its name, however, it is unbelievably important. In fact, it's making Corporate America very rich."

But why do all of these companies want such specific details about your habits? After all, tech enthusiasts have labeled this data as data exhaust – not exactly suggestive of something important.

Contrary to its name, however, it is unbelievably important. In fact, it's making Corporate America very rich.

For companies – especially advertisers – this personal information is a gold mine, unlike anything they've ever seen. Before the tech revolution, they had to guess about consumers in America, mostly by looking at credit card purchases. Think "soccer moms" and "yoga dads."

With your digital exhaust, however, they have a very real person. A very specific person.

They have you.

So how much are you worth? Digital advertisement in the United States last year totaled $72 billion. By 2020, that number will reach $113 billion.

Said another way, you're creating $72 to $113 billion of economic value each year not by working an eight-hour shift but by just being you. And you're giving it away for free.

But here's the kicker: You're also paying for the pleasure of giving it away. You purchase your cellphone or laptop, your internet connection, and (sometimes) a subscription to the very websites collecting your data.

If this strikes you as unfair – not being paid at a time of stagnate wages, student debt, and an inability to buy your first home – it should.

Unfortunately, though, it's about to get a lot worse.

Consider the recently announced Samsung Family Hub refrigerator. Open its doors and inside you'll find cameras that monitor food consumption and expiration dates.

Out of mayo? Not to worry. This fridge is connected to Amazon, which will send you fresh supplies as needed.

Admittedly, this convenience sounds pretty cool. But pause for a moment and remember: You will spend over $5,000 to purchase this fridge, pay Amazon for the groceries, and cut a check each month for internet service.

Meanwhile, all of these companies – Samsung, Amazon, and your ISP – will also be grabbing the data you create when you simply eat. By just being. With that data exhaust, you'll help them sell (and sell and sell) pieces of your value to advertisers for billions.

You get none of it.

Companies know that these types of gadgets – all together called the Internet of Things (IoT) – are the future of our global economy. That's why they're connecting every consumer good you can imagine – clothing, toothbrushes, toilets – to the internet. The massive amounts of data exhaust you create will result in billions or more in profit.

The winners in this lopsided exchange are obvious. Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos will use IoT devices to increase his fortune far beyond its current $70 billion.

Meanwhile, the losers – you and I – will continue to believe that their economic value is limited to "doing" something for eight hours a day.

That is, unless we find a way to fight back.

There are different solutions being considered but I've focused on one in particular: data mining royalties.

In the world of resource extraction (oil, natural gas, and minerals), landowners are long accustomed to getting paid a royalty when their property is mined. Companies like Shell and ExxonMobil pay farmers, ranchers, and governments each time they remove a barrel of oil or ounce of gold.

The reason for the exchange is clear: when someone takes, they have to pay. That's how healthy capitalism works.

Data mining companies, however, are playing by a different set of rules. They are extracting a resource – your data – and selling it for billions without paying you a dime. Meanwhile, some are even charging you for the mining equipment with every new device you buy, paid website you visit, or ISP you use.

If, however, we were to levy a royalty each time data companies extracted or sold your information, we could ensure that you are adequately compensated for the value you create.

The particulars of this approach are still in the design phase – research partners are needed – but the concept is sound.

If you get mined, you get paid.

And that is how we ought to answer the question raging in Congress. Who in America should profit from the tech revolution? You. Not Big Data.

Commentary by Bryan Dean Wright, a former covert CIA operations officer whose work included how technology and data impact national security. Follow him on Twitter @BryanDeanWright.

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