April 12, 2018

Momentum Builds for a ‘Data Labor Movement’

George Leopold

The abuse of social media data highlighted this week by two days of media-trained testimony by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg shines a spotlight on the privacy tradeoffs inherent in the widespread use of convenient, addictive applications.

If Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is correct in saying we users are Facebook’s “product,” supplying all our personal data and reaping few if any of the profits, then part of the coming regulation of social media should include compensating us for our labor. Wozniak, who also has a product he would like to sell, trashed the social media giant by asserting that Facebook’s “profits are all based on the user’s info, but the users get none of the profits back.”

The data privacy upheaval and assertions that it is promoting economic inequality are seeding a nascent data labor movement in which social media giants like Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) would compensate users for their personal data. Part of the reason, a new book on digital markets argues, is that all that posting and “Like”-ing is uncompensated work.

“Data is something that is useful to companies in producing products that we all like,” said Glen Weyl, co-author of Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society. Interviewed this week on NPR’s Morning Edition, Wyl continued: Data is “incredibly intimate, and its belongs powerfully to us. So, all those traits sound a lot to me like labor.”

And that labor in the form of tweeting an Instagram-ing adds value to social media company’s products, prompting the Yale University economist Wyl and others to argue that users should get a cut of the hefty profits.

What we get in return for relinquishing our privacy, of course, is convenience and the ability to watch instructional videos, find a restaurant and the fastest route to it. What YouTube, Yelp and Google Maps (NASDAQ: GOOGL) get in return is far more valuable, personal data that is quickly becoming the coin of the realm. Wyl told NPR: “I want to see companies compete, and say to people, ‘Look, you shouldn’t be taken advantage of. We will pay you a fair price for your data.’

“I want to see people get aware—cyber ‘woke’,” Wyl added.

As data becomes more valuable to the economy, Wyl, who also works as a researcher at Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), estimates our data should be worth about $1,000 per social media user per year.

Wyl and co-author Eric Posner’s advocacy of a data labor movement is part of a larger thesis about the profound impact of data on the economy and how wealth tends to accumulate in behemoths like Facebook rather than their product: us. Hence, they argue that a data labor movement and other mechanisms for “expanding the scope of markets” will help reduce economic inequality while restoring economic growth.

If big personal data is the future, they maintain, all of us deserve a share of the profits.

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