At times, it can seem that online marketers know more about you than your family and friends do. We’ve all heard stories of big data shocking consumers with the knowledge it collects and the insights it accrues. Back in 2012, Target made the news for figuring out a woman’s pregnancy before she announced it to her family. In the eight years since, data collection has only accelerated; what once seemed incredible now seems ordinary. In the past few years, however, technologists, politicians, theorists, and everyday citizens have become concerned about the growth of what Harvard professor emerita Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.”Concerns about big data were once on the fringe; but at the end of 2019, former president Barack Obama listed Zuboff’s book on the data crisis first on his list of books of the year. Suppose we change the rules about big data? What would a new internet regime look like? How would businesses operate and how would everyday users’ experience change?
Consensus may be found on the blockchain, but it’s rarely found in politics or civic life. That being the case, there are several proposed solutions for problems of excessive data surveillance. Some presidential candidates believe the largest companies should be broken up, so that the same company that sells you books and operates your streaming service should not, at the same time, sell you server space. Other theorists and politicians maintain that data collection should be opt-in, rather than opt-out or even mandatory. This is the path followed by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act. Korea has taken drastic steps; their privacy is a stated constitutional right upheld by the strict Personal Information Protection Act.
Tech companies large and small have your data on their servers; they can be said to possess it, but do they truly own it? Perhaps the time may come when it’s self-evident that the generator of personal data — you or I — is the natural owner of the data, just as anyone who writes an original work, be it a private letter or a grocery list, by default has copyright on that work. If this became the general rule and were codified into law, the internet would change forever: The whole online economy would have to be rethought. Imagine, for example, what might happen if users could sell their data to interested entities? What new business models might emerge, and what aspects of our digital society might transform?
Some think a data-owning future means that regular users would individually sell their data, or portions thereof, to advertisers willing to make sufficient payment. The mechanics of this, however, are difficult to parse: Selling individual tranches of data to individual websites might prove time-consuming and inefficient for both parties to the transactions. You might stop the next Cambridge Analytica from arising, but you’d leave millions or billions of internet users frustrated and longing for the old ways. Gamification might be more compelling: Customers can be persuaded to want to exchange their data. Business receives the information they require, while consumers have an enjoyable experience.
For all the growth and change it has undergone, the internet remains a young technology. We’ve not yet grasped the full extent of its impact on society, and we’re unlikely to do so for decades to come. Within just a few decades, the internet has moved from a fringe interest to a central driver of economic growth, cultural development, and political change. More fundamental changes will come; one such shift may relate to our understanding of privacy and ownership. What will the next decade bring to the web?