You Too Should Make Money From Google!

No doubt, no matter where you are in the world, you have followed the debate in the United States around online privacy and the ability (or not) to sell your personal data.

“What privacy?” you might rightly ask. Google and Facebook already track our every click and swipe and sell our information to anyone with a verified payment source.

Don’t worry! If you love the ads they target at you, if you find the ads that follow you around perfectly relevant and important to you, if you enjoy clicking through the personalized offerings that come your way and if you don’t mind the wait as your ad heavy pages struggle to load…good news! None of that is going away.

In fact, hang on…if you do fit the above profile there will be even more of it coming your way as Internet service providers (ISPs) will now also be able to legally collect and sell your data. And since they have a broader view of all your digital activity, no matter where you roam, the belief is that they will have more data to package and sell.

I will leave the politics to others regarding President Obama’s initiative that was never actually implemented and now President Trump’s that, no doubt, will be.

My interest is in what does all this really means to you and me as we live our “Digital Is Everything but Not Everything Is Digital” lives.

Here is one view:

“We believe today’s misguided vote will unleash even more ‘Big Data’ profiling and tracking of Americans, and spur an array of discriminatory practices,” said Katharina Kopp, policy director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy organization based in Washington.

“Information about your activities may wind up being used to make adverse decisions about you. Something your kids search for online could be the basis for why you are denied a loan,” said Peter Eckersley, chief computer scientist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group based in San Francisco.

Companies, too, could find sensitive information compromised.

“If an ISP can sell information about how many of your employees are searching for jobs right now, why would they not traffic in that?” Eckersley asked.

The opposing view is simple.

Too much regulation. Bureaucrats getting in the way of free commerce. A leveling of the playing field…true democratization. Why should Google and Facebook have a controlling monopoly unlike anything ever seen in the history of commerce?

And, of course, the rather bizarre answer articulated by the enemies of regulation and bureaucracy to the notion of abuse of privacy.

Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, dismisses concerns that consumers would have little recourse if companies fail to protect their data:

“Litigation is another avenue that consumers can pursue against ISPs for mishandling personal data,” Blackburn said.

So much for consistency…

Anyway, back to Data.

Lester Wunderman, the legendary pioneer of data-driven marketing, always said that, despite all the data that is collected about us, consumers would sleep better if they understood how irrelevant most of it actually is.

Think about it. Check your profile on Google and Facebook. See if you think they have really zeroed in on you. When I ask this question in talks and keynotes I give around the world, no matter how many people are in the room, a very small percentage raise their hands…most laugh, shake their heads and are glad to have it out in the open.

Yet they sell our data with assurance and confidence, and I doubt that they ever append any notion of it being anything but accurate.

Bottom line—accurate or not—your data is currency and that currency is fueling huge valuations, creating huge wealth for some and driving business models for start-ups all over the world.

In fact, a number of people are asking why the collectors of data aren’t paying us for the harvest. From the Los Angeles Times:

Data are the most important resource of the 21st century. The capacity to transform raw data into decision-making recommendations is changing the world in ways that rival the Industrial Revolution…

And the companies that collect and analyze these data are generating billions in revenue. According to a report by Oracle and the MIT Technology Review, the most successful data companies, including Amazon, Google and Uber, treat data as an asset — something that can be bartered, sold and monetized…

Microsoft Research scientist Jaron Lanier and others argue that users should receive “nanopayments” for data created by them. One Dutch technology pundit, Jathan Sadowski, has even said that a lot of data collection is a “form of theft” — an appropriation “without consent and compensation.”

The article argues the opposite side as well:

…it’s pointless to chase nanopayments, and not just because the big technology companies might not like the concept.

Many of the products and services provided by “data refineries” — including Amazon’s recommendations, Google’s traffic predictions and Uber’s surge pricing — depend on information from millions of individuals. One person’s contribution isn’t worth much. If, for instance, Facebook divvied up every cent of its profits among its users, each would receive about $5 for 2016.

But then again:

Rather than focusing on how much our information is worth and asking for a paltry financial handout in return, we should demand something far more valuable: the right to experiment with our data and the settings that determine what data refineries show us. This “seat at the controls” will ensure that we can make the best decisions for ourselves, while still benefiting from these companies’ recommendations.

One of the best articulations of this argument was published by The New Yorker:

…For the most valuable innovation at the heart of Facebook was probably not the social network (Friendster thought of that) so much as the creation of a tool that convinced hundreds of millions of people to hand over so much personal data for so little in return…

The trick is that most people think they are getting a good deal out of Facebook; we think of Facebook to be “free,” and, as marketing professors explain, “consumers overreact to free.” Most people don’t feel like they are actually paying when the payment is personal data and when there is no specific sensation of having handed anything over. If you give each of your friends a hundred dollars, you might be out of money and will have a harder time buying dinner. But you can hand over your personal details or photos to one hundred merchants without feeling any poorer.

But let’s be clear:

Data capital is one of the most important assets of every online consumer service created in the past decade. Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Uber have all realized that data is more than just a record of something that happened. Data is raw material for creating new kinds of value, especially digital services.

So, shouldn’t we have access to value as well…beyond creepy ad stalking?

Indeed, we should. Jaron Lanier, one of the great digital visionaries, has expressed it brilliantly:

You say free culture is dangerous. Why?

I actually helped make the argument that music should be free and would ultimately benefit culture and musicians, so it’s not that I am unwilling to accept this new thing. I helped make it. And it does have some plus points. For one, people like feeling generous and it feels good to share and to be open. That is precious and we should find designs in society that celebrate that. But the way we are doing it means everybody becomes a servant of a tiny handful of large tech companies, and that’s really pretty stupid. If an online service is free, you can bet it is feeding a scheme that makes money by subconsciously manipulating people. It is strange that so many are blind to this.

One thing that bugs me is the way context is lost. You start discovering new music or new culture in very particular ways. Algorithms become your guide. If an algorithm calculates that you may like a piece of music, it will recommend it to you. That makes the algorithm the master of context for humanity. It tends to remove culture from its context, and context is everything. The structure of the Net itself has become the context instead of real people or the real world. That’s a really big deal.

One of the original ideas of mash-up culture is that you find a piece of music, someone else mashes it up, then it turns into a video, somebody else makes a parody of the video and it all turns into this giant flow of creativity. It is genuinely a cool thing that everybody can contribute. I don’t want to lose that but today, those who make the mash-up receive no benefit, it just serves Facebook or Google or some other giant corporation and becomes part of the incredible concentration of wealth we are seeing – and it dehumanizes the people involved along the way.

When we were thinking up the Internet, I firmly believed that with a global information system in place, it would be impossible for people to deny things like climate change, but we are seeing the exact opposite. Our information systems allow people to live in little bubbles and to disconnect from reality in a way we didn’t foresee. This is very disappointing and is having a negative impact on art, politics, science, the economy, everything really.

What about the sharing economy?

When Google was just starting, there was a fascination among Silicon Valley intellectuals with the culture of the world’s slums and their informal economies. This inspired the idea of the sharing economy where the people at the center of the network – the Facebooks, Googles and Ubers – become ultra-wealthy and ultra-powerful and everyone else gets a sense that they are benefiting by bartering with each other. But the idea that we can get by in a sharing economy where ordinary people are expected to share while a few companies at the center get all the money is just not sustainable.

Participating in a well-functioning formal economy means you can plan for a whole life, you don’t have to sing for your supper. If you get sick you have savings. You have some predictability in your life. That’s why we want real assets like a house or intellectual property (IP). A true sharing economy that is inclusive is interesting to contemplate, but that is absolutely not what we are talking about here.

So what needs to be done to ensure a sustainable digital economy?

The obvious starting point is to pay people for information that is valuable and that comes from them. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but the basics are simple and I am sure it can be done.

Some sort of imposed socialist system where everybody is the same would be ruinous. We should expect some degree of variation. But right now a handful of people – those inheriting traditional monopolies like oil and the increasingly powerful big computer networks – have a giant chunk of the world’s wealth and it’s having a destabilizing impact. While an oil monopoly might control the oil, it won’t take over everything in your life, but information does, especially with greater automation.

I would like to see more systems where ordinary people can get paid when they contribute value to digital networks; systems that improve their lives and expand the overall economy.

My view is that the issue is so much bigger and fundamental than whether some ISP is going to compete with Google. Frankly, that will add little or no value to my daily life.

The great content that I want to see needs to be paid for, one way or another, but the long tail of my personal data is doing a lot more—is worth a lot more—and, frankly, the tenth serve of some product I have no personal interest in, but may have looked at for a friend, isn’t a value exchange of any significance.

My view is that we are caught up in the wrong arguments. Political, advertising, brand….

Back to Jaron (whom I have had the honor of hearing speak):

I would like to see more systems where ordinary people can get paid when they contribute value to digital networks; systems that improve their lives and expand the overall economy.

Could it be that we have all become inured of our own value? We have followed the pied piper for so long that we have lost sight of what might be. Listen:

“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” —Oscar Wilde

Maybe we have become too cynical. Algorithms have led us to believe that, in fact, we know the price of everything and more…But have we lost sight of true value?

I leave it to you….

What do you think?

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