After the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, Mark Zuckerberg was called before the United States Congress to be grilled for political points. It is not yet clear what political payoff Congress will receive from the event; but Zuckerberg made $ billion. It is not clear what, if any, action congress will take in response to the matter, but there are some interesting subjects here. I will focus on the idea that private data is a currency.
When I signed up for Facebook, I quickly realized that the deal was quite simple: Facebook would squeeze every droplet of data from my online activities, siphon them up for processing and monetize the results. In return, I would get access to certain Facebook services. Google also offers a similar deal—in return for the data blood they can suck out of my online life, they offer various useful services. I had no delusions that my data would not end up in the hands of third parties so that they could exploit it for monetary gains or other, more nefarious, purposes. Naturally, neither Facebook nor Google put it in these terms. Facebook, for example, makes a rather large production of how they respect our privacy and tout their suite of privacy controls. When Facebook gets caught doing what it does, Zuckerberg or his minions engage in an apology tour, wringing their hands at how naïve they were to put their trust in some wicked organization. Then they go back to monetizing the data and crafting new apology algorithms.
It might be suspected from what I have just said that I have no issue with what Facebook and other companies have done. After all, it seems that they acted exactly as I expected. However, this does not entail that I agree with their actions. To use an analogy, when I go into the woods behind my house, I expect the ticks to try to get on me and drink my blood. I do not, however, approve of these actions. This is because they are stealing my blood and only giving a risk of disease in return.
But, if allowing the ticks to drink my blood somehow yielded a meaningful advantage to me, such as improving my resistance to diseases (rather than exposing me to them), then I would certainly consider striking a “deal” with the ticks—it could be worth trading some blood for something useful. This is my relation to Facebook—I am trading some digital blood for some useful services. Unlike ticks, the people of Facebook are intelligent—so I can strike a meaningful deal with them. The key question is sorting out what sort of deal would be rational and ethical.
While Facebook and Google say that many of their services are free, there is no such thing as a free service (to modify the old saying)—the user trades something of value for something of value. There is obviously nothing inherently wrong with an exchange—one might even argue that is how reality works even in terms of basic physical laws. As such, Facebook, Google and others should not be criticized for engaging in receiving value in return for their services. However, by presenting them as free they are being disingenuous. Going back to the tick analogy, imagine that Tammy the tick said she would give me resistance to diseases for free by biting me, but left out the part that she would be sucking some of my blood. This is what Facebook and company do: they profess to offer a free service, then extract value from the users.
It could be said that just as a person should know that Tammy the tick will suck blood, one should know that the “free” Facebook is really paid for by allowing Facebook to profit from user data. The easy and obvious reply is that people should not be expected to know that “free” services come at a cost; such exchanges should be made openly. If Tammy the tick made it clear she would take some blood in return for disease protection, then I could enter an informed deal. Likewise, if Facebook was clear about the money it makes off its users and how it does so (without, of course, revealing key trade secrets), they could enter an informed deal. If ticks could really grant disease resistance, it could be quite reasonable to trade a little blood for this advantage. Likewise, users who know what they are yielding to Facebook and other companies and regard it as worth the real cost would find it quite reasonable to enter such deals. This does, of course, require that these companies are honest about their business model: they are not free, users are paying in the currency of private data.
While our economic system is built on power imbalances and intentionally maintained ignorance, a rational and ethic deal requires that users know the value of what they are giving up. To use an analogy, if Tammy the tick could exchange my blood with other vermin for far more than the value of the disease resistance she offers, then I am being ripped off—Tammy is exploiting me. But, if Tammy is honest about her blood profits and makes it clear that she is earning them through her efforts, then the deal can still be rational and ethical. Going back to Facebook, if they are clear about what my data is worth to them in terms of profits, then I can enter a rational and ethical deal by deciding if what I give up is worth what I get. Obviously enough, for Tammy the tick and Facebook to make a profit, they must give the user less value than what they receive—but this is a matter of capitalism and not a special matter for companies like Facebook.
If private data is looked at as a currency, Facebook, Google and other data dealers who offer goods and services for data could and should work out an honest payment system. Just as a person can select various goods and services based on their monetary costs, users should be able to do the same in terms of the privacy costs. To illustrate, a user might have the option to provide Facebook with the bare minimum of data needed for the account to exist and get in return the bare minimum of services. A user could elect to upgrade their services in return for giving Facebook broader permission to monetize their data.
It could be argued that the value of private data cannot be calculated like a currency, so this could never work. The easy and obvious reply is that Facebook and Google already monetize privacy—they are aware of the value of the data. While the value can fluctuate and vary between people, this is no different from any other commodity or currency that is assigned value. As such, it is time to end the lie of “free” services and put the private data dollars on the table for all to see. The question that remains as to what the private data currency should be called. While it might be amusing to say “Google has got me by the privates”, “privates” would thus obviously be a bad choice. So would “P coin”, “P dollars” and anything involving “P” (though Trump might be intrigued by “P” as a currency). Perhaps Privcoin? Hmm, that would allow the “Privycoin” joke. Well, the naming must be left to the folks in marketing.