It’s time we accept it: data is a form of labour

We all own, hoard, produce and broadcast data on a daily basis. In fact, every second an average human creates 1.7mb of data. Every second we create 435 times as much data, as the memory capacity of the computer that took the humans to the moon and back in the 1960s (Source)

“Data”, is a curious word, is generic, and often misunderstood. From its early recorded uses, it has been linked to the sense of “certainty”. It comes from the Latin datum, and it refers to “a fact given or granted”. It’s ubiquitous and present in every aspect of our lives. It can be useless, if unstructured, but powerful if organised!

Where are you vs Who are you.

We all own many types of data, but mainly, what is most valuable are two:

  • PII or personal Identifiable data (where are you): this is, for example, your name, email, telephone number, postcode, address, etc.
  • Behavioural data (who are you): all the traces of data that you leave behind when you are online. Every “like” of a photo, every search, every email you send.

Understanding where are you has been a critical part of the data puzzle. Companies, institutions, governments, needed a way to communicate with you and sending you a letter to a physical location was the only form. Until recently, this is just how things worked, that’s why entire industries were built around just collecting addresses, postcodes and lately emails.

Today, we are digital beings living both in a physical and digital world. While institutions still need to communicate with you, and still rely mostly on postal addresses, in the digital world knowing where you are is no longer limited to a physical location. In fact, our digital selves are directly attached to the devices we use to interact with the digital world. Reaching out to us has become so easy, that it’s almost a given.

For all these reasons, understanding who you are is today more important. This is done using mining and tracking technology. It has advanced so much, that they can extrapolate and infer a lot about you, simply based on what you search, what you like and what you share. Retailers and advertisers use this to craft hyper-targeted messages that are borderline creepy. Beyond advertising, these traces of data are also being used by private firms, governments and security agencies to track people, snoop on employees and fight terrorism, amongst other things that we may never know.

Free Internet – The promise!

I used to believe that advertising kept the internet free. My thought was “hey, if I have to see a few ads, to enjoy this content, sign me up!… as long as I don’t have to pay”. Content creators need to make a living and advertising allow them to do this. Jaron Lanier, the well-known technologist and philosopher warns: “Try to be aware of the cost of free. Right now, you pay for free services, because data is used to change the option in front of you…” (Source)

But, if it is not advertising, there really aren’t that many options left. Google has tried to implement a “survey wall”, where users would need to complete a few market research questions to gain access to content. Google then shares part of the revenue with the creators. This model hasn’t been very popular.

Youtube has a promising model, where they share a portion of the advertising revenue with their creators, as long as they meet certain conditions. Creators have found in this a good way to monetise their content, but this model is a one-way street, that rewards creators, but not the users, whose data is being mined to target advertising.

The next option that creators and publishers have is to implement a subscription fee. Medium has tried this approach. But how scalable is it? if we had to pay a subscription to every single publisher, platform, application, that we use, the internet would be unaffordable for most.

The truth is, that advertising is not the evil, instead, it’s what companies have done with our data.

Data as a form of labour:

There are two critical things that we all need to understand about our data. First, every time I search for something on Google, or open any website, or like a photo on Instagram, or comment on Facebook, or downvote a post on Reddit, I’m sharing my data. Knowing or unknowingly, my data is training advertising engines and fine-tuning them to sell me more advertising.

Second, our data has value, real $ value! Our data makes targeting more effective, and it plays an important role in reducing the cost of advertising. It’s hard to put in words how important our data is to the functioning of the advertising economy.

According to E-marketer (Source) by the end of 2019, the total spend in online advertising is going to be over 316 Billion USD. Let’s flip it around, by the end of 2019, we are going to be targeted $316billion worth of advertising. Our data, your data, my data is being used to target us this advertising. Sorry for being repetitive but the sheer size is absurd. Our data, fuels an industry that by the end of 2019 is going to be worth 316 Billion dollars! How much are you getting from this?!

As if the size of the online ad industry wasn’t enough, our data not only is feeding advertising engines, but also it is being mined by companies like Palantir (valued at $10Billion). Their big data platform is capable of identifying terror threats before they happen, and mine intelligence out of our unstructured data at an unprecedented scale. So recapping, you share your data with a company, that company takes it to Palantir, they analyse it and in the best case they will try to sell you more products, worst case, you could be labelled as a gang member without even being one (Source)

Data is a form of labour

For years, us, the users, have been paying for the content we see online. It’s easy to see it, we don’t give money to pay for access to the seemingly free online services, we are giving our data, which in return is used to sell us advertising. Our data is being mined, exploited and sold. Moons ago, I wrote about our data being today’s Gold (Source). But lately, I am more inclined to believe that our data is the modern coal, that fuels online money making engines. Without our data, these engines would stop running.

Until recently we could live with this tradeoff (data in exchange of content), but now we know that this is not enough. First, the role our data plays is too important to ignore it. Second, as data mining becomes more powerful, we are being sold a lot more than just advertising.

Roger Macnamee, an early investor in Facebook, used this argument when taking Facebook to the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division:

“The hypothesis that came to mind was this: Consumers are giving up more value in data than they receive in services. This appears to be true both in the moment and over time, even if consumers are neither aware of it nor troubled by it. If the hypothesis is valid, the price of internet platform services to users has been rising for more than a decade. In the context of anticompetitive behavior against suppliers, advertisers, and competitors, the Chicago School would find that situation to be in violation of its antitrust philosophy. Does it matter that users are not complaining about the “price” of their data?” Source

One thing is to sell me a toothbrush, but another one is to manipulate my emotions by targeting me content directly aimed at my worst fears. You can’t use my data to manipulate people, to question the truth and to undermine democracies around the world. This has to stop!

Turning a blind eye would make us all accomplices in a new form of slavery, conveniently ignored by many, called Data Slavery. Matthew Pirwosky masterfully describes it like:

“In the same manner that pre-modern civilizations exploited slave labour as an engine of rapid growth in the absence of strong moral norms to the contrary, the Internet behemoths of our era slowly morphed into exploiters of and traders in the modern data slavery market.” Source

There is a growing sense of awareness about the importance of our data. Sooner rather than later this “ all you can eat” model, where unilaterally a few are benefiting from the data we all share, will be a thing of the past. Thankfully, more and more voices are waking up to this data problem and there is a growing movement of people actively working towards creating awareness. Will.I.Am, recently wrote for the Economist:

“Personal data needs to be regarded as a human right, just as access to water is a human right. The ability for people to own and control their data should be considered a central human value. The data itself should be treated like property and people should be fairly compensated for it.” Source

We need to take a stance against data slavery, and demand from internet giant something simple yet powerful:

“You need to stop seeing me as your user. If you use my data, I’m not your user, I’m your partner and as such I want my share of the pie!”

Put your money where your mouth is.

This principle is at the core of phlow. It’s our north star and what motivates us to wake up every day to keep growing our community. In phlow we acknowledge data as a form of labour. We go beyond acknowledging, but we are working on implementing the first revenue sharing model that doesn’t see users as unpaid labour,.
our goal is to redistribute back to the community 80% of our net profit. We do this at scale using blockchain and a cryptocurrency.

We want to help people open their eyes and realise that sharing our data in exchange of content is not enough. When people understand this, no company will ever be able to collect data from a user without rewarding them, users will demand it. When people understand that we are partners and not a free source of data fuel, it will open Pandora’s box, nothing will be the same.

Creator, photographer, idealist and traveller, in any order you like. Married to the most incredible woman on earth and dad to an amazing boy. The definition of luck!
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