Data is the lifeblood of the surveillance economy, yet most people are not aware, let alone have a clear understanding that their everyday activities are being tracked, harvested and monetised to help tech titans like Google and Facebook make around $6 billion a year in Australia.
Even the term ‘data’ sounds abstract, clinical and removed from the individual. But it’s really referring to our everyday activities and the behaviours around it. It’s referring to our name, email address, gender, birthday, phone number, search history, movements around town, interests and hobbies, videos watched, IP address, network connection, smartphone type, credit card, debit card, purchase history, even our home movements (through smart home devices like Google Home or Amazon Alexa).
There’s actually a real person behind every data footprint. Yet the conversation to date has been that the public will be willing to continually allow our data to be traded and monetised in this way. That we will be happy to allow tech companies to trade away our data in exchange for their free products and some advertising.
These assumptions need to be challenged, because things are about to change.
This year, there is a coming regulatory storm around Big Tech. We’ve seen how wide-reaching the News Media Bargaining Code has been, and how platforms we once carefreely relied on like Facebook can be turned off without a moment’s notice. This is just the beginning.
We also have the newly developed Disinformation Code, which is designed to address the quagmire of fake news, the Online Safety Bill relating to the eSafety Commission’s abilities to combat online harms, updates to the Privacy Act, which has not been updated to account for the Internet, and the Digital Advertising Services Inquiry, which looks at Big Tech’s harmful surveillance business model.
These are much needed reforms and inquiries in a Big Tech environment with almost zero regulation and almost ubiquitous reach and influence.
The Digital Advertising Services Inquiry found that the surveillance business model, and the technology that powers it (or “adtech”) is incredibly opaque and dominated end to end by (you guessed it) Google.
All of Google’s various public products, whether it’s Search, YouTube, Gmail, Maps, etc. are all set up to harvest vast troves of people’s data/personal information. Adtech is set up to ensure this data can be effectively monetised and sold to advertisers.
If you are a public servant involved in marketing, advertising, or publishing, you would already know that Google has complete horizontal integration across the complex adtech stack:
This is a competition issue because no one else can compete with Google, as Google hoards vast amounts of data and has integration across the technology that monetises it. It’s a public and privacy issue because it takes this data without the public having a clear idea of what they’re signing up to, and because the data sharing happening between Google services often happen after they said they will explicitly not share it.
So, what can us hapless lay people do? The ACCC Inquiry is proposing some increases in data management for individuals including data portability – the ability for the public to take their data from one provider and take it elsewhere, lessening the possibility that they are ‘trapped’ on one platform where they’ve created so much content.
There are proposals that would allow data transfer between large incumbents (i.e. Google), or data interoperability to smaller vendors so that there is healthier competition in the industry. There are also proposals for data separation, to make sure that Google doesn’t share large banks of data between its products (e.g. sharing YouTube data to the main Google infrastructure).
These are all fantastic initiatives that go towards balancing the market imbalance caused by Big Tech.
But the larger issue of the surveillance economy remains. The public, whose data footprint is constantly being vacuumed up without its awareness, remains a passive source waiting to be mined, a submissive serf being used for Big Tech profit.
So the big idea is this – that our data should be paid for by the tech companies who want to use it. This is a concept that’s gaining traction.
New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, a Big Tech favourite ironically, has called for this on his initiative called Data Dividend Project, helping the public claim data as its property and getting paid by tech platforms. Jaron Lanier “the face of Virtual Reality” has called for the same thing. Academics, policy boffins and scattered public servants are also starting to murmur.
There are some concerns that a transactional exchange of data in this way reduces all our data into a commercial exercise, and that data collected for the public good, like health information, or community trends will be disadvantaged by this pursuit.
Of course, exemptions for public benefit would be a simple solution to those concerns, but the critique of data as merely commercial currency has merit. We do need new ideas for our online footprints that’s not just about surveillance and profit.
Nevertheless, as the Australian government (and indeed global governments) further develops its regulatory agendas against Big Tech, ideas like payment for public data will come up more and more, and what seemed like a pipe dream several years ago may have a chance to become law sooner than we think.