Privacy as a commodity deepens inequality

by | Dec 2, 2019

Privacy is fundamental to societal and consumer values. Consequently, people have demanded privacy regulations to bar businesses from secretly monetizing their sensitive information. Yet, new policy proposals suggest treating data as a commodity will rebalance the relationship between Americans and the technology industry. Implementing legislation of this form perpetuates a future of data colonialism and threatens to disproportionately strip low-income communities of their privacy rights. 

Americans value their privacy and expect businesses to respect it

The last few years have embodied a transformation of data value. Often it is referred to as the new oil, encompassing the proliferation of business insights and the impact of such on business revenue. However, since the beginning of GDPR talks, a wave of concern over the disregard of people’s privacy has occurred. This has lead privacy and insights to be portrayed as polarizing priorities, with businesses and consumers shaping opposite ends of the argument. While such needs not be contrasted amidst the launch of advanced privacy-protecting and insight-preserving technology, people’s fight to be protected signifies a clear prioritization of their privacy.

In support of this, a new privacy bill, dubbed the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act (COPRA), was proposed by Democratic senators on Tuesday that may be the push needed to implement a federal privacy bill in America.

This is intended to afford US citizens similar rights to their EU counterparts under GDPR. COPRA would:

  • Allow subjects to request what data companies are holding on them and ask for it to be deleted or corrected
  • Require explicit consent for companies to collect and share sensitive data
  • Forbid companies from collecting more information than is reasonable to carry out the service consumers signed up for
  • Necessitate CEOs of data-collection companies will have to annually certify that they have “adequate internal controls” and reporting structures to be compliant 
  • Capacitate private-citizens lawsuits over data collection become a possibility

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) declared that “In the growing online world, consumers deserve two things: privacy rights and a strong law to enforce them.” Steve Durbin, manager director of the Internet Security Forum, seems to agree, writing in an email,  “What is clear is that privacy is becoming more of an issue in the United States.”

This week, a new Pew Research study questioned how these values impact Americans’ view of smart speakers. It demonstrated that more than half of Americans are concerned about data privacy and that 66% of respondents were not willing to sacrifice more data for more personalization.

As smart speakers continue to grow in popularity, data privacy concerns will continue to rise. However, consumers are making decisions as to where to buy based on the privacy stance of the brands. Such is seen in the fact that Google has negative growth in the market share (-40.1%) in light of their GDPR-fine, secret harvesting of medical records, and acquisition of Fitbit. 

Learn more about how consumer purchasing decisions rely on product privacy in our blog:

Treating data as a commodity effectively monetizes your privacy rights 

In mid-November, Democratic candidate Andrew Yang proposed a four-prong policy approach to tackle the inadequacy of American privacy legislature today. Part of this plan is what is referred to as “data as a property right.” The idea is that people should profit from the money companies make collecting and monetizing their personal data. That is to say that, businesses would provide consumers with data payments if they chose to give them access to their personal information.

While the proposal seeks to rebalance the American relationship with big tech, this model will normalize the idea of privacy as a commodity, and disproportionately strip low-income communities of their data privacy.

Ulises Mejias, an associate professor at the State University of New York, explained that “Paying someone for their work is not some magical recipe for eliminating inequality, as two centuries of capitalism have demonstrated.” This argument signals that not only would treating data privacy as a commodity not rebalance the power, but will normalize systemic “data colonialism.”

In the article, “Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject,” researchers Couldry and Mejias suggest that continuous tracking “normalizes the exploitation of human beings through data, just as historic colonialism appropriated territory and resources and rules subjects for profit.” Such is based on the unprecedented opportunities for discrimination and behavioural influence that would only be scaled if data goes up for sale.

The reality is, if data is considered a commodity, people would not be selling their data, but their privacy. After all, there are no reasonable statistics to determine the value of data, “[t]here’s no going rate for Facebook likes, no agreed-upon exchange rate for Instagram popularity.” (Malwarebytes Labs) So, the question becomes, not how much am I willing to sell my age information for, but how much do I value the safety afforded with location secrecy and right to non-discrimination based on sexual orientation, for example. 

When data is a commodity, private information that individuals should choose whether or not to disclose becomes transactional. “It’s much easier for a middle-class earner to say no to a privacy invasion than it is for stressed, hungry families, Marlow said.” (Malwarebytes Labs) In essence, treating data as a commodity is like a pay-for-privacy scheme, designed to take advantage of those who need extra money.

When the world is pushing for data privacy to be considered a fundamental human right, moves to monetize privacy reflects the historic appropriation of resources and people. Data colonialism will disadvantage those in low-income communities and regress the revolution of privacy prioritization.

An alternative way to empower autonomy over consumer data is to regulate Privacy by Design and Default. Businesses should embed privacy into the framework of their products and have the strictest privacy settings as the default. In effect, privacy operations management must be a guiding creed from stage one, across IT systems, business practices, and data systems.

This promotes anonymization as a solution and leads to a future where business insights and consumer privacy are part of a common goal. In revoking the commodity nature of the Yang proposal, we rescind the deep-seated inequality ingrained in pay-for-privacy schemes while accomplishing the original intent and building a better future. Privacy is not a commodity, it is a fundamental human right.

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