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The Great Data Debate: When is Your Data… Yours?

Big data is big business - the powerhouses of the internet are built upon it. For years now, individuals have relied on free services and these services have relied on the users’ data to build empires. Regulations have dribbled in here and there, often in response to major data breaches and complaints, but a new world order has arisen in which online ventures can collect, interpret, and use mountains of personal data to build mountains of wealth.

The companies in question claim that individuals agree to these terms when they use the free service and that they receive good value in return. Governments claim these outfits are manipulating people in order to build monopolies on the flow of information. And the users themselves? They don’t seem to care much at all.

Mathematician Clive Humby once claimed that “Data is the new oil.”¹ That was in 2006, back when Mark Zuckerberg was considering selling Facebook to Yahoo!. He and others were building the new version of the internet that is such an integral part of our lives today. Personal data has, indeed, become extremely valuable but the inevitable question has arisen:

Who owns the goose’s golden eggs? And what does the goose have to say about it?

An explicit agreement

If you write the recipe for your favourite salad in a post on Facebook and publish it, you know explicitly that everyone you have in your friends list can see it and know what your favourite salad is. That was the reason you posted it, after all. The benefit to you can be various; perhaps you wanted to share your recipe so others can make the salad. Perhaps you’ve been itching for a smackdown debate on the virtues of the Caesar vs the Cobb. Perhaps this is your first step in becoming a leading authority on salads and you want to gain exposure. Whatever your reasons, you have made an explicit choice to share your personal salad preference in exchange for whatever benefit you think you receive in return.

The problems arise when the exchange is implicit or when the aspect of choice itself is removed. When you sign up for a Facebook account, you are required to accept a policy that includes the phrase “We collect the content, communications and other information you provide when you use our Products, including when you sign up for an account, create or share content, and message or communicate with others.”² But people rarely read and, even more rarely, understand these policies. Facebook’s policy takes 18 minutes to read and its wording is well above a college comprehension level.³ A Pew Research poll asked Americans what a privacy policy was and over half answered incorrectly.⁴ How can consent be explicitly given if most people don’t even understand what they’ve agreed to? (Spoiler: it can’t.)

As for choice, users can’t decline a privacy agreement and still sign up for the offered service. They can choose to not sign up for the service at all - but how much of a choice is that, really?

As an example, 70% of employers screen potential candidates on social media before hiring them. 57% of employers won’t ask a candidate for an interview if they can’t be found online.⁵ This means that opting out of social media’s privacy policies also, in many cases, means opting out of the job market. This effectively removes the element of choice so an informed, explicit choice to share your personal information with someone is unlikely to be achieved.

An arms race for data

Companies, from the local mom and pop shops to the multinational conglomerates, are constantly hungry for information that can give them an edge. The advent of the internet age opened a lot of doors. Instead of guessing who their customers were and how to find them, companies could build advanced profiles and create targeted ad campaigns to exactly predict where their best customers spent their time. No longer did they have to play guessing games, they could access the ad platforms of Facebook or Google and have those companies hand deliver their ads to exactly the right people. This is a positive in a lot of respects - customers see fewer irrelevant ads and companies spend far less money getting their product in front of eyeballs. But it comes at a cost; larger gatekeepers end up collecting hoards of user data in an arms race to out-compete one another.

And they make billions from it. Offer a “free” service and reap billions of dollars worth of user data that you can use and sell as advanced advertising metrics. Governments are taking notice. The EU came out with a sweeping legislation a few years ago with one core message: user data gathered online belongs solely to the person it refers to, regardless of who collected it or how.¹ Companies can collect and use that data, but it is considered to be on loan and anyone can retract that access at any time. California recently followed suit with a similar legislation package.⁶

Who needs privacy, anyway?

A 2019 Axios survey found that 75% of people had become “less likely to trust companies with their personal data” as compared to the previous year, but only 45% took the next step in updating their privacy settings.⁷ If users don’t care that much about companies’ use of their data, why should the companies care? A growing awareness of data privacy concerns has prompted little in the form of actual changes in behaviour. Part of this may stem from the lack of choice mentioned earlier in this article, but part of it may just be apathy to the problem. Unless a data breach affects you personally, you may be inclined to shrug off the risks. You certainly don’t want to start paying for services that you’ve always been able to use for free.

But this apathy may be declining. Earlier this month, the popular messaging app WhatsApp changed its privacy policy to state that it would now be sharing user data with its parent company, Facebook. The result was a wave of people abandoning the platform in favour of a previously not-very-competitive competitor, Signal. In a matter of days, the influx of millions of extra users overwhelmed Signal’s servers and caused a temporary crash.⁸ Signal, also a free messaging app, stresses user privacy as its top priority and offers end-to-end encryption on all messages. This means that not only can the company not read your messages, but it also doesn’t know who you are, who you’re talking to, or either of your locations.

A technological problem could have a technological solution

Signal isn’t the only service trying to connect people differently - a wide range of investors and entrepreneurs are attempting to tackle the data problem. Tim Berners-Lee, who some of you might remember from that time he invented the internet, is attempting a novel way to redirect the power away from the beasts that have reared their heads within his world.⁹ Addressing what he sees as the problem of data “silos”, he’s proposing a method that allows each individual to host their own private data “pod”. Each individual’s pod would be owned by them and not any company whose service they use. The individual could choose to allow temporary access to any service they wished and could revoke that access just as easily. This would extend the efforts of GDPR and other legislation - not only would each individual have ownership of their data but also complete control over it.

Will it catch on? Nobody knows. Apathy still runs rampant and users are getting genuine value for their information. But if you’re paying attention to the Signals, change could be coming.


  1. Lee, Frederick "Flee" (2020, May 7). Be a Data Custodian, Not a Data Owner. Retrieved from

  2. Facebook Data Policy. Retrieved from

  3. Litman-Nivarro, Kevin (2019, June 12). We Read 150 Privacy Policies. They Were an Incomprehensible Disaster. Retrieved From

  4. Smith, Aaron (2014, December 4). Half of Online Americans don't know what a Privacy Policy Is. Retrieved from

  5. Number of Employers Using Social Media to Screen Candidates at All-Time High, Finds Latest CareerBuilder Study. (2017, June 15). Retrieved from

  6. Myrow, Rachael (2019, December 31). California Rings in the New Year with a New Data Privacy Law. Retrieved from

  7. Hart, Kim (2019, February 25). Consumers Kinda, Sorta Care about their Data. Retrieved from

  8. Duffy, Claire (2021, January 13). Why Messaging App Signal is Surging in Popularity Right Now. Retrieved from

  9. Lohr, Steve (2021, January 10). He Created the Web. Now He's Out to Remake the Digital World. Retrieved from


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