I have a wonderful, wacky, perhaps delusional idea: I want my own personal data privacy world. In this world, I could complete control what I share with data vampires. You know these vampires as websites, mobile apps, social networks, search engines, Internet and wireless service providers, navigation and GPS applications, cable TV providers, device manufacturers, credit card companies, retailers, and nowadays pretty much any company I buy anything from or electronic thing I’m connected to.
In my fantasy world, I’m the one who gets to choose how much and what kind of data I share with the vampires. In my world, I can let a mobile app access my identity, but not all my contacts. In my world, I can block select ads on websites, especially if I’m adamantly opposed to the product or its manufacturer or if the company inserting the ad into the web page really slows down my session. In my fantasy, Facebook doesn’t force me to accept not just their own “1st party” cookies but everyone else’s (“3rd party” cookies) or data catalog every preference and every behavior I undertake. In my world, Google doesn’t scan the contents of my private email messages so it can show me ads against that content or track the entire history of my searches. In my world, my location is completely unknown until I decide to reveal it.
I know, you might now be saying, “Hollis, your world sounds pretty reactionary. In fact, it sounds a lot like you ought to be in the middle of the desert at this rate.” Or, even more commonly the thing I hear from other people when I talk about this subject is, “Why do you even care? I’ve got nothing to hide, so none of this privacy stuff bothers me.” I’ve got nothing to hide either, but I still care. Yes, sometimes I do feel like being completely off the grid, completely untethered particularly from data vampires. But I have another motivation: If my data is so valuable to these vampires, why am I – why are we – so readily giving them the cow? It’s like taking candy from a baby. More egregious still, in many of these cases, data vampires make money off us twice: We pay them directly for access to their services and then they turn around and sell our data – OUCH!! I say we need to turn the tables around: If they want our data so badly, I say let them pay us for it!
Some of you might argue that we have no choice, that a lot of the companies siphoning off and exploiting our data get it because they give us something free that we like in return: Google and all its many free tools, for example; or Facebook with all its free social connectivity; or lots and lots of mobile apps that charge us nothing to download them. The reality in these instances, though, is that you always have a choice. You can use alternative and less invasive platforms, for example (DuckDuckGo search engine instead of Google; Firefox browser in Private Browsing mode with Tracking Protection enabled; and a social network platform I just newly discovered while researching this article, Minds). You can use an ad blocker when you surf the Web if the tracking bothers you along with the ads. You can disable lots of tracking mechanisms on your phone and its apps when you don’t want or need to use them.
Most people just don’t make these choices. We’re all creatures of habit and change is hard. We don’t want the inconvenience of having to use a different tool or platform. We like the ones we’re using and “all our friends are there.” In exchange for convenience, we readily (and oddly) give up something many people try very hard to maintain in the rest of their lives: control. Our apathy in this matter allows these online companies to roll in the dough while they keep chipping away at our own real value.
Flipping the Paradigm
Back in my fantasy world, I want to flip the paradigm around. I want complete control over my own data, what I let other companies have, and I will be making money from this. Some of my data I will just hand over in exchange for certain access or use of technology; for other parts of my data, I want a fair and equitable compensation.
In order for this idea to work, my fantasy world can’t be populated by me alone –millions of other Internet users are here with me. People who have different motives but who will also benefit from the arrangement. I imagine people who have been having a tough time making ends meet earning a little bit more cash by giving data vampires more access.
I imagine parents helping to fund their kids’ college educations by making money off those same kids’ online activities (should they choose to allow it, of course). I imagine people trying to save for special purchases being able to do so a little more easily by being compensated for electronic activities that reveal that new car, home, or vacation they’re actually trying to save for. I imagine entrepreneurs being able to fund their new business ideas through the money they earn in merely conducting online research and transactions. In my crazy fantastical world, it’s not the big tech companies alone who make the big bucks. In my world, our consumer value as individuals is not only recognized and protected but also monetized.
And Now a Word about Privacy Protection
Recently the U.S. government rolled back regulation written to help protect private citizens against the sale of their data collected by Internet service providers. ISPs obtain this data very differently than many of the other Internet players because whereas we can more easily choose what sites we browse, platforms we use, and apps we download, it’s not very easy to switch between Internet service providers on a day-by-day, case-by-case basis. In some areas of the country, consumers don’t even have a choice – there’s only one solitary provider where they live. To me, this lack of control makes for the greatest argument why the privacy protection regulation mattered.
As of this writing, however, it appears that the states may be picking up the issue to try to impose restrictions at the state level. Perhaps the time is right for states to also consider ways to help their constituency monetize their online usage. The states that do, after all, will also directly benefit through the increased household incomes of their citizens. On the other hand, if no regulation exists, my wild and wacky world goes up in smoke, and I will have to concede defeat.
But it’s sure been sure fun to imagine for a while.
Hollis Thomases, a “recovering” digital marketing entrepreneur and pioneer, is the founder of ReinventionWorks, a think-tank and platform that teaches adaptability. ReinventionWorks licenses content to and develops unique programming for organizations and businesses confronting constant change.
For more information, see “Read More”