Just what is the “data exchange” market, and why should you care? Garrett Hazelwood over at Slate gives the run-down, describing it as:
a new breed of tech startup promising to cut us in on a share of the vast wealth being created by the sale of our personal data. Billing themselves as disruptors of a top-heavy and exploitative industry, these companies promise to build platforms where we can collect, store, and ultimately sell our browser histories, Fitbit analytics, bank statements, Instagram posts, Spotify habits, and all the other data points that drop from us like skin cells and hair follicles as we go about our lives.
Companies like Streamr and Ocean Protocol are aspiring to purchase your data from you to re-sell it – data involving everything from your home thermostat changes to your driving habits. The thought process is that currently, companies like Facebook use your data for free, simply giving you a service in return; these companies seek to offer compensation to users for their data. Sound Orwellian enough for you?
Don’t freak out just yet, though. The data exchange market technically is not actually in existence yet. The thing is, this kind of data “is only valuable in the aggregate,” which means all these companies will have to build up an extensive base of users before they can offer them “meaningful” compensation.
How are companies obtaining this data?
Hazelwood is wary of this model because the data that companies are asking users to sell is obtained surreptitiously:
The problem is that the kind of data these companies want you to sell is not just some inert commodity. It is not the product of your labor. It is the product of surveillance, and surveillance is a tool of manipulation.
Furthermore, the emerging industry is problematic because it robs the user of agency in managing their personal data:
These commercial data exchanges extend the exploitation inherent in the current system by incentivizing passivity. The model is one in which an individual’s agency extends no further than saying, Yes, I consent to sell this amount of my data to this company for this reason or No, I will keep this information private. The assumption is that our identities are like land in which a mineral deposit has been found: Data exchanges offer us the chance to sell mining rights.
What would an ethical data market look like?
In Hazelwood’s view, contributors should have “real agency” in order for the data market to be truly ethical. For example, author Jaron Lanier conceptualizes this as a market where “you sell data that is ‘beautiful and unique to you’ and which reflects something you can become excellent in and proud of.” One example of something like this would be “a collective of gardeners who sell data that helps program gardening robots others can buy—data, in other words, that actually does represent the fruits of labor.”
The data exchange market may not yet be up and running – but it won’t be long before it is! In the meantime, let’s hope that companies and users take into consideration the ethical concerns that are emerging.