What’s Your Worth?

It took the deaths of over 50 million people to impress upon the world the necessity for an organisation as the United Nations (UN). 31 years after its founding, the UN General Assembly finished adopting the International Bill of Human Rights, cementing each individual’s human rights into the history of international norms.

Today we find ourselves living in a digital age divorced from the outmoded social fabric that gave us human rights. Yet, we have not updated human rights to reflect the changing times.

According to INC Magazine, the single most valuable commodity of the 21st century is your digital self;

“Your digital self is the collection of data that intimately describes you in a way that makes it possible to model your current behaviors and to predict your future behaviors.”

This information is highly valuable to advertisers and interest groups who want to effectively reach their market or influence public opinion.

When you put your personal information online, you are creating value. That information, even when viewed anonymously, is valuable. Facebook, Twitter, Google and a host of other “free” online services know this. They have created platforms that invite users to input their data. And once they receive that data, they monetise it.

On the login page of Facebook, it says; “It’s free and always will be.” But social media services are not free. Users pay with their data. These platforms are digital brokers. They receive the valuable data from its users, package it, and sell it. They also keep all the profits. What do the users receive from this sale of their data?

In economic theory, one of the most important parts of any deal is something called “added value”. Imagine that you and a friend are making a pie. You have half the ingredients and your friend has the other half. Say that your ingredients are worth three dollars. And your friend’s ingredients are also worth three dollars. If you and your friend were to combine your ingredients and make a pie, you could sell the pie for eight dollars. This would give you both two dollars of profit. This profit is the “added value” that comes from working together and creating something that is worth more than what you had on your own. Now, ideally, because your ingredients and your friend’s ingredients were worth the same before you made the pie, when you sell it, you split the profits 50/50. In other words, you should both get half of the profits.

Let’s apply this example to the case of social media companies. Users have something of value: their personal data. But personal data is not conveyable in their hands. The social media companies also have something of value, their platforms which market personal data and package it to be sold. But social media platforms that are empty of user data are not attractive. Assuming that both users and social media companies want to sell personal data, they could achieve this best by working together. When users add their personal data to social media platforms, the data becomes conveyable and attractive to advertisers and interest groups.

This combination of user data and social media platforms generates “added value” in the form of centralized access. It creates a quick and easy way for advertisers and interest groups to effectively reach their market and influence public opinion. Therefore, having both added something to “the pie”, users and social media companies should both receive profits from the sales equal to the equity that they respectively added to the product.

But this doesn’t happen. Instead social media companies keep all the profits and the users get nothing because they are generally not conscious that their data is even being sold.

People who make shoes for Nike in Vietnam make $0.20/hour. Nike adds the raw materials and the workers add the labour. Together they create the “added value” of a finished pair of shoes. Because they both added something to the final product, they both share in the profits (although unfairly, some might add).

Vietnam has one of the lowest wages in the world. But these shoemakers are at least getting paid. The users of Facebook, Twitter, Google etc. who play a part in creating the “added value” of marketable user data, receive nothing. They are engaged in a deal that is worse than one of the world’s most infamous economic exchanges. And the worst part is that they don’t even know that the deal has been made.

Personal data is the new oil. It may be time that we begin contesting whether social media and search engine companies really “own” the data that their users “give” them. In normal interaction, outside of computers, people are generally selective with the personal information they give to other people. We tell doctors only what we think they need to know to address health concerns. We tell politicians only what we think they need to know to conduct matters of state.

But in the digital realm, different rules apply. Users generally communicate a considerably broader and more specific range of information to only a few sources. Those sources then spread that data onwards for their own exclusive benefit and without the user’s express permission. Should users be able to choose whom their personal data gets sold to? Should they be able to sanction specifically who has access to their digital selves?

“If there ever was a dividing line between “digital” rights and human rights, it has blurred to the point of irrelevance.”

Is it time to update human rights to protect the dignity of digital selves. What would digital human rights look like? We’ll explore that further next week.