If we owned every click, email, instant message, video, tweet, photo, or text we send, we’d probably call the NSA’s interception of email traffic reported in today’s Guardian what it is: theft. This isn’t some flaky idea from a deranged conspiracy theorist. The World Economic Forum has called personal data “a new asset class” in the same league as real estate, stocks, bonds, and good old cash. “Personal data is the new oil of the Internet and the personal currency of the digital world,” says Meglena Kuneva, European Consumer Commissioner in a 2011 report published by the WEF. If our own personal data is like an oil well, we should sue the federal government for unlawful confiscation of property.
Most of the reaction to the revelations about the NSA plan have focused on improving laws on data privacy or “empowering” consumers to take more control of their data. This week, Julie Brill, a member of the Federal Trade Commission, called for the creation of a program she called “Reclaim Your Name,” a phrase the New York Times termed “handy.” The program would encourage consumers to demand access to their own information held by data-warehousing firms. But no amount of cute sloganeering will curb abuses of personal data if governments and corporations view the data as their property, rather than the property of the person who produced the data — you and me. If the NSA had purchased or licensed the data from us, they would have a greater incentive to treat it with more care, or risk a lawsuit or a criminal investigation.
President George W. Bush once called for an “ownership society” that would promote personal responsibility and economic liberty. If we believed we owned the data we produce, we’d be outraged at how the government and corporations treats it. We’d demand financial compensation for its abuse. The WEF report (p. 10) has a suggestion: “In practical terms, a person’s data would be equivalent to their ‘money.’ It would reside in an account where it would be controlled, managed, exchanged and accounted for just like personal banking services operate today.” Scientist Jaron Lanier has suggested a different methodology based on the same principle: that each person owns information about himself and that revealing that information requires compensation.
If you are a lawyer, tell me how I can claim property rights for my data. Comment below.