The Second Digital Divide: Pay for Privacy and Trade with your Privacy

– by Gry Hasselbalch

If you weren’t already aware of it, you are being profiled online and your personal data traded in a billion dollar data industry. Don’t worry, most people don’t know much about this. The personal data market is incomprehensible to the average consumer mostly because the trades with their data happen without their direct involvement. And this seems to be the main problem when great minds have to come up with innovative solutions to today’s privacy invasive online business models. The fact that consumers are not involved directly in the trade. That they don’t get their cut of the cake. “Pay for Privacy” and “Trade with Privacy” become the norm, presented as the most fair solutions. But fair to who? Perhaps it’s more a question of a change in fundamental perspective?

Trading personal data – trading privacy

The data broker industry is based on the collection and trade of personal data. In the US it is said to be a billion dollar industry. Read this report from 2013 about the secretive data broker industry and you will see examples of how intimate details about individuals are being used to profile people, place them in discriminatory categories and target vulnerable groups of people. People’s personal data become part of economic transactions with often severe privacy implications. This per se amounts to a compromise of privacy.

The consumer’s personal data market place

One solution presently put forward is to create yet another type of data market place: the personal data market place. It’s a little bit more fair as this time the consumers are directly involved in the transaction. They get to sell their own data. Right now there are a number of emerging companies aimed at aiding consumers to organize and sell their data to various interested parties. These companies market themselves directly to consumers. They want to help the consumer with ‘reclaiming their personal data’ to ‘unlock the value of their personal data’ and so on and so forth.

You can’t trade privacy

What is wrong with this picture? Well, basically it’s a problem when privacy is fundamentally perceived as something you can trade with, or that you can buy if you are in the right mood to ‘treat yourself’ with a luxury good. Whether you sell your own data, or someone else sells it behind your back, practically has the same privacy implications for you. You might feel that you are more in control, but you will still be profiled and targeted. The only difference is that you get paid for it. And who will need the extra wages? The ones who need the extra wages.

The Second Digital Divide

The first digital divide was created between the ones with access to the internet and its opportunities and the ones without. The second digital divide is the one we are creating right now with the emerging “Pay for Privacy” and “Trade your Privacy” market models. My privacy preserving mail box costs me approximately 50$ pr year. If you are living in Uganda on a minimum wage of 29 dollars pr year, you couldn’t even pay for your mail privacy if you wanted to. And you would probably also be willing to sell some personal data for a good price (and it doesn’t help either of the digital divides that the data broker  Facebook volunteers to provide Facebook to the world). Any teenager in a western country with the same amount of pocket money would do the same.

Privacy is a human right

Privacy is a human right (really well put in this op ed by Richard Hunter). No economic interests can justify or outbalance the individual’s right to privacy. This means that as a business you shouldn’t be able to trade with a consumers’ privacy or ask someone to sell it to you (and generally you shouldn’t be able to build a billion dollar industry on it either, but that’s a different pretty amazing story). Nor should privacy be something the individual has to pay for. Human rights are for all. Not only for the ones that can afford it.

March 2015