Without even knowing it, we are often doing unpaid work for tech companies like Google and Facebook. According to economist Maarten Goos, the time has come for people to be compensated for that work. “You should profit from your data,” he says.
You may not even know it, but you are a part of the largest army of volunteers that humanity has likely ever known. No, not for the Red Cross, the Seal Rehabilitation and Research Center in Pieterburen, the Netherlands, or some other good cause, but for Silicon Valley. Every day we are helping line the pockets of Google, Facebook and other tech giants by giving away our valuable personal data totally free of charge, often without even being aware of it.
Take reCAPTCHA, for example, which is known for its exasperating puzzles full of crosswalks, fire hydrants and stoplights, and which websites use to verify that you are a human being and not a spambot. Anyone who has ever purchased a plane ticket via klm.nl, received travel information from 9292.nl, or purchased a concert ticket through Ticketmaster knows what hell looks like: having to stare endlessly at blurry pictures of storefronts, palm trees or suspension bridges because you apparently keep overlooking a coconut or a Korean insurance broker’s storefront.
Not everyone knows that these CAPTCHAs – short for Completely Automated Public Turingtest to tell Computers and Humans Apart – not only serve to protect websites against spam, but also provide free labor for Google, the owner of reCAPTCHA. Every time we solve one of these puzzles, we help self-driving cars and other “learning machines” to master traffic situations. Of course, artificial intelligence requires data – lots and lots of data – to truly become intelligent. And we are the ones who provide that data.
The same thing happens with another well-known type of reCAPTCHA which requires us to retype words. By using this, Google has us transcribing books and newspapers like 21st century monks. In the process, we help improve Google’s optical character recognition software, the technology which enables computers to read both handwritten and typed texts. In 2008 alone, the first full year in which reCAPTCHA was used, people helped to decipher 440 million words from books and newspapers. That is equivalent to 3,700 times the length of “Madame Bovary.” It is estimated that we solve approximately 200 million of these and other CAPTCHAs per day. As a result, we are also squandering half a million labor hours each day. And economists wonder why it has been so difficult to improve productivity in recent years.
CAPTCHAs are just one of many examples of unpaid labor. When we post and tag our photos on social media for free, we are also helping companies such as Amazon, Facebook and IBM develop more advanced forms of artificial intelligence, such as facial recognition software, that they can then sell to the police or intelligence agencies. The personal information that we post on the internet, as well as the GPS location information from our phones, helps companies bombard us with eerily customized advertisements. Take, for example, anti-abortion ads for women who, according to the GPS on their telephone, are sitting in the waiting room of an abortion clinic, or advertisements for disinfecting wipes because the “smart thermometer” which you just used to take the temperature of your child who is running a fever turned around and sold your data to a cleaning supplies manufacturer.
Why don’t people receive compensation for the personal data which companies are using to amass their fortunes? This issue is discussed under the heading “Redistributing the Value of Digital Ownership” in the “Report of the High-Level Expert Group on the Impact of the Digital Transformation on EU Labor Markets,” which was recently submitted to the European Commission. The report was produced by a 10-member committee of experts from various fields who were convened in Brussels to come up with unorthodox solutions for problems facing the labor market in the era of the internet, robots and big data. The head of the committee, Flemish economist Maarten Goos of Utrecht University, summarizes their recommendations, saying: “You should profit from your data.”
Until now, barter has been the unspoken social contract undergirding large segments of the internet economy: free services in exchange for free data. A Facebook or Instagram profile costs nothing, for example, but thanks to the photos and messages that we post there, Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow social media titans were able to generate 49 billion euros (approximately $55 billion) in advertising sales in 2018. “Currently, the data that you produce on their platforms is, almost by definition, the property of the corporation,” says Goos.
Take cars, for another example. When you drive, you are generating data for the auto manufacturer, such as how fast you go, which routes you choose and what type of driving style you have. “Or how often you honk your horn, which can also indicate how aggressive a motorist you are,” explains Goos. All this data results in better cars and safer roadways. But our driving data is also a potential gold mine for third parties, such as insurers and advertisers. “And that is something that we find much less acceptable from a social policy perspective.”
Thus, the question becomes: How do we compensate consumers for their data? Goos argues that we should view data as intellectual property. If companies want to use our data commercially, then they should be required to purchase a license from us, comparable to how filmmakers currently purchase a license from an artist when they want to use that artist’s music in their latest thriller or road movie.
Goos points out, however, that before data licenses can be seriously considered, we must first answer another important question: How much is our data worth, and what would constitute reasonable compensation for it? “I am not going so far as to denounce Google’s business model and proclaim that it must now give people back everything it has in terms of their data. Doing that would also impede a great deal of progress. This is really just the first step toward a much needed, collective debate about the value of our data.”