Privacy: We Should Raise Our Standards and Get Paid for our Data

Just a real quick thing: If you have not yet read “Weapons of Math Destruction” by Cathy O’Neil I highly recommend you do so.


In the book, O’Neil talks about the impact algorithms have on our day-to-day lives; and how we need to manage that impact better than we currently are. (Whether that management is done by the government or an independent organization doesn’t matter to me. What matters is getting the management done instead of wringing our hands about it.)


New York City’s City Council is taking some early steps to do just that, the first in the US to do so, but hopefully not the last. 


Ok, that said, I’m an Athiest.You might be wondering what the fuck that has to do with your privacy, and the answer is: Everything.


When you think about Atheists, what typically comes to mind? Assholes, right? People who are usually really obnoxious about being atheists and mocking everyone and anyone who doesn’t agree with their point of view.


Obviously, we’re not talking ALL atheists here, but that’s the general conception. Atheists are obnoxious assholes.


Except, I’m the exact opposite of that. I’ve been to church and temple and enjoyed myself. I think religion is terrific if it makes you happy or brings you comfort.


Put another way, I believe God, or whatever your conception of God, is great. I fully endorse and support your belief in a supreme being.


But that belief is just not for me. I think we’re just highly evolved apes in a world and universe we still have little grasp of, but I’m not going to try to recruit you to my way of thinking. I have no interest in doing so.


So you see, there’s the way we think about Atheists, and then there’s this other way of doing so.


It’s the Same Deal with Privacy!


We think, if we buy an Amazon Echo, or own a smart device, that we’re surrendering our privacy, and that’s the way it has to be, but it doesn’t have to be that way at all.


You can enjoy an impressive device like the Amazon Echo Look (the Echo where you take pictures of yourself, and it uses humans and machine learning to help you figure out what to wear) and not worry about what else Amazon is doing with those photos.


You just have to ask for it. Otherwise, you get the default assumption. Atheists are assholes. You have no privacy.


These are default assumptions that we can change.


What we have to do first is raise our standards.


If Google Maps asks you to contribute data, you can ask them for a micropayment of some kind. You don’t have to give it to them for free.


Google, like the rest of the Frightful Five (Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook) has more money than it knows what to do with.


Your data is incredibly valuable. So if Google Maps wants you to take pictures inside your local grocery store, answer questions about how late that store is open, and review it, then you should be compensated for your photos and the time you took to do this for them.


I took the above photo because Google Maps asked me to do so.


Time is the most valuable resource you have. Every second you waste is a second you can’t get back. So do you really want to spend that time enriching the data set of a multibillion-dollar corporation while providing virtually no benefit to yourself? Of course not!


To be clear: We’re not talking a lot of money here either. So don’t think what I’m saying Google should do is financially impractical. It’s not.


For example:


-Google could pay you in store credit (maybe a “free” Google DayDream after you provide them with $100 worth of value in your Google Maps contributions. Or you can use that money you’ve earned from them to trade it in for the new Pixel if virtual reality isn’t your thing. It isn’t for most people.


-Google could also pay you in BATs (Basic Attention Tokens), which you can then use to reward your favorite websites, publishers, and YouTube creators who can then turn the BATs into actual dollars.

BAT is like bitcoin (but free of the bullshit hype) and is meant to serve as a currency between advertisers, publishers, and you. If you’re like me and don’t want to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times because you only want their Dodgers coverage, you could use BATs to pay for only the Dodgers content you read.


-Finally, Google could just pay you straight up. A dollar here. A few cents there. Again, not big amounts, but those dollars and cents add up over time. Maybe contributing to Google Maps makes you enough money to pay for your smartphone every month.

Or gives you a little extra cash to throw at your credit card debt. Hell, maybe this could even turn into a second source of income in the same way people drive Lyfts or rent out their spare rooms on Airbnb.


The point is, you currently give this data away for free to Google, but you don’t have to.

There’s another way to do it, one that benefits you and benefits them. In theory, the more incentive Google gives you to do something, the more data it can collect and improve Google Maps for everyone. This makes Google Maps more popular, bringing in new users that Google can serve up advertising to.


Another example:

If you paid for Facebook, then the tradeoff should be that their app(s) don’t spy on you.


Or, if you don’t want to pay Facebook, then they can act as a middleman between you and an advertiser in a different way than how they currently operate.


Instead of being super creepy and tracking you every which way they can, the advertiser would say, “I want to give Jackie a dollar in exchange for Jackie seeing ads from our company. Each time she sees an ad, we give her another dollar.”


Facebook would take a cut of this dollar for serving the ad, sure, but Jackie would get some of that money as well for her time.


The advertiser benefits because they can now be sure Jackie saw the ad. Facebook’s system wouldn’t be incentivized to lie anymore about its reach and other fantasy metrics. Everyone benefits in this scenario and it also keeps Facebook as a free to use platform.

They (Facebook or the advertiser) could even use Blockchain technology to keep track of which user is getting paid by which advertiser and verify that the ads are being served correctly, which would help people, publishers, and advertisers trust Facebook more than they currently do.

Right now, Facebook has no incentive to do this because advertisers are dumb and just dump money into Facebook, but that’s not going to last forever. They know that. You know that. The advertisers soon will too.

What I’m suggesting here could be a better way forward. More importantly, what I’m suggesting here (which by no means is a new idea, it’s been floating around since at least 2011), is that we don’t have to think of giving up our privacy as a cost of owning and using fun devices and platforms.


There is how we think things are, and how things can be. What you and I have to do is raise our standards. We all should agree that how our privacy is treated right now is not ideal and that there is a better way to handle things. It’s our data, our choice. We should be compensated for parting with that data.


If the Frightful Five don’t want to make changes based on their customer’s desires and requests, then they should be regulated, either by an independent organization or by the state and federal government to make the changes we, as customers, want.


We can have this world, we just have to ask for it. And if the tech companies don’t want to give it to us and keep a destructive and scammy advertising (and privacy-invading) echo system alive, then we can fight to put a stop to it.



Photo Credit: City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold