Data is the most precious commodity of the 21st century, yet we give it away for free. When social media first arrived on the scene, the deal seemed pretty good; we got free entertainment at the cost of watching a few personalized ads.
Time has revealed just how one-sided these deals are. Big Tech accumulates eye-watering profits off the traces of our digital behavior, and we’re starting to realize just how little we get in return.
It is simple but hugely profitable. Companies collect information and sell it — they trade everything they learn from and about us with others. The global data broker market is expected to reach a whopping $345 billion by 2026. In the meantime, Big Tech players are profiting more as we get more and more consumed with the digital world. According to its 2019 annual report, Facebook generated $41.41 per quarter from every user in Canada and the U.S. alone.
Famously described as ‘surveillance capitalism’ by Shoshana Zuboff, this industry has made information a tradable commodity, while the people it’s generated from are receiving laughably little in return. We have been expressing our dissatisfaction with this relationship mostly through raising privacy concerns. However, in my opinion, the real issue is a profit concern.
The question is not if Big Tech and the conglomerates deliver value. The question is about the fairness of the economic exchange and the preservation of our bargaining power. For years, I have been asking these questions but remained unable to find a path to fairness. Finally, there is an answer.
The solution is not complicated regulation and government intrusion. Blockchain and most notably Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) could balance the scales. By applying the immutable digital stamp onto the data we emit, NFTs could be the private tool we use to track, manage and sell our data to the most desirable or highest bidder.
Non-Fungible Tokens provide the ability to capture an individual’s uniqueness and offer a tamper-proof structure to expose that uniqueness to buyers with a simple standard process. NFTs place the power of choice in the hands of every individual by allowing them to create a programmable logic that defines the price and the nature of their data offering. For example, I can offer my online browsing data, my medical data or home utility usage data to the highest bidder.
True capitalism is based on supply and demand — in this case, being paid for data about us, that’s used to make money for someone else. However, a fair exchange only happens when there’s a shared understanding as to what that commodity is worth. Currently, we’re relying on the opaque, deliberately unreadable ‘terms and conditions’ waiver to elucidate the deal. NFTs open the door to a very different participative relationship.
NFT’s make it possible to share, trade and track any digital asset. While swirling hype has surrounded the sale of tweets, artwork and even human skin, there are industry-changing ideas that are about to be launched. For example, Snoop Dogg and his ambitions to get music creation and distribution all on NFTs could redefine how creative music artists get paid.
If we put our biases aside and get past social media and advertising value there is a lot more to gain. Our healthcare data could be sold to drug companies to cure diseases. As IoT (Internet of Things) becomes a part of our day-to-day life, our usage of autonomous cars and our air conditioning systems will also have value.
Moreover, store transactions now captured by loyalty cards or credit cards revealing our spending patterns at restaurants, grocery stores and malls could also be turned into additional income. Each one of us is a data factory with a stream of products generated every minute of every day. Data products that have market value.
But not all personal data is equal. The value of information varies with the application and based on who we are. Medical and genetic data from the baby boomer generation has a different value for drug companies than data about Generation Z buyers’ product affinity for a consumer product company.
But what about privacy?
Post-Cambridge Analytica, there’s a real gap in trust. This can also be addressed by the use of NFTs. My data is my private asset and I will be willing to sell it on an exclusive or shared basis at the right price. Exclusivity and privacy that is controlled by each individual via their privately and uniquely generated NFTs and not by Big Tech. Distributed ownership of data without centralized control, secured by NFTs, could make massive data hacks a thing of the past.
NFTs enable online ownership — it is only logical that this ownership should extend to our data too. They can also solve the privacy dilemma without government intrusion. I believe NFTs could provide the final technological layer that drives a new era of partnership between people and companies.
We need to turn ‘surveillance capitalism’ into ‘participation capitalism.’
Sid Mohasseb is an adjunct professor in Dynamic Data-Driven Strategy at the University of Southern California and is a former National Strategic Innovation leader for Strategy at KPMG. He is the author of “The Caterpillar’s Edge” (2017) and “You are not Them” (2021).