Professor Olinga Taeed PhD FIoD *
Director, Centre of Citizenship, Enterprise and GovernanceCouncil Member and Expert Advisor, Chinese Ministry of Commerce ‘China E-Commerce Blockchain Committee’
This personal data thing, it’s just not working. Some claim that corporates want our data so they can sell stuff to us and governments want our data to control us. But companies retort that if you expect your commercial product to be free, and help create their jobs, economy and services to society, they must be allowed to get to know you to help (others) target you better. Like Google and their gmail, Facebook and their WhatsApp, bankers will tell you that free banking forced them to develop other more convoluted instruments that eventually ruined the world in 2008. Similarly, Sovereign States have a responsibility to protect their population and encourage positive social structures – so they see no problem with tracking our movements, rewarding good behaviours and identifying bad actors. Faced with 1.4 billion population, China openly uses a social credit system and defies ‘Land of the Free’ western ideology that hails individual rights preferring to protect the corpus not the few.
I think the issue is that we mistakenly think of data as a tangible hard asset like money, gold, land … things we can lose and others gain. Actually it’s not – data shows all the hallmarks of an intangible asset, a subject which I have studied for over a decade. Like all intangible non-financial assets, data value is dependent on the holder; you can’t spend it at Starbucks but it can be invaluable in the hands of others. Data transactions are directional – I love you doesn’t mean you love me. Indeed like love, happiness and hope, it is infinitesimally replenishable - you create more data tomorrow – you haven’t lost the asset by giving it. Afterall we don’t stop smiling at a beggar because we think they’ve taken something from us? By smiling we have given them information about ouirselves – we have told them something about how we feel, the Holy Grail of personal data. We are happy to share with others on social media all about us, our inner beliefs, our core values, and then we’re upset that companies, governments, and others use it to understand or manipulate more efficiently? Doesn’t that happen every day with colleagues, friends, family when we share ourselves with them? What is it that we have lost?
If the dollar is the currency of financial value, I have wanted to know what is the currency of non-financial value. For years I promoted sentiment as the new currency of the millennium but in reality it has become impossible with current technology to come to a consensus on how to measure it. And if you can’t measure, you can’t bill it so all attempts to improve the world based on impact have hitherto failed. In the UK Social Value 2012, UK Slavery Act 2015, 2% CSR Laws in India, Indonesia and Mauritius, most United Nations MDG (and now SDG) initiatives, etc … the world is no better place; data is manipulated to be compliant, with honesty, integrity and compassion the ultimate loser. Data, however, is indeed universally measurable and thus a much better proxy to our intentions. What if we dispense with the misnomer that we can hold back the personal data ocean, and focus on the data transaction. I would be happy for my data to be used by governments, by corporates, by anyone if in exchange they agree to donate their upside (profits, tax, revenues, whatever) to civil society and undertake not to harm anyone in the process, including myself. To do this we would need an immutable ledger to track the use of our data – to tokenise not for personal gain but for societal gain. If you don’t want to surrender your information (which you cannot use in any case) then that is also fine … but don’t expect to receive the upside from the public and private interventions. Only blockchain can do this and provide the transparency for challenges.
A key differentiator of non-financial transaction is the basis on a social contract – eg in a relationship “you can have my love IF you make me happy, do not harm me or my children” – what we would call a smart contract with social dependencies. Intellectual Property, another intangible, has developed systems like Creative Commons which depend on simple attributes to safeguard the use; something very similar could be developed for our data. Permission to use our data, like a donor card, can be tokenized and withdrawn retrospectively demonstrating our alignment to corporate policy or government strategy, something we define as a Microshare Token. Making data consumption measurable, whether by corporates, governments or NGO’s makes the impact actionable.
So in straight forward terms, what am I saying? Here is my data, please use it to get to know me. Try not to harm me ... and if you promise to use it for good, then I trust you with my data, my thoughts, my life, my hopes and my ambitions. I don’t wish to build a Mexican Wall of my life to repel all those seeking to know me whether for good or not. It's not my data, I will share it with you freely as I share my love, my happiness and my thoughts. Because I share it doesn't mean I've lost it – I have new data tomorrow representing the new me. It is ever lasting, tomorrow I will generate more love, more happiness and more data. It does not belong to me, I give my IP to you freely to make the world better. Yes you made money by knowing me, or knowing me will make me more vulnerable to political influence. I'm happy for you. I hope it makes the world a better place. So don't pay me, pay society... give them the money you would have given me for my data to others who need it. That is why data and blockchain are a perfect mixture. It's a trustless system where we can share our data, transparently track it, contributing to a decentralized collective responsibility to be distributed to whoever needs it.
So let us put our data on the blockchain, not always insist on payment or recognition, but whomsoever uses the big data agrees by the principles of honesty, integrity, and respect of all those who put it there. And on our behalf, they agree to pay a percentage of the value they create from it to others ... a social tax, a CSR, ... and this we can track ... through the blockchain, and permissioned through a token. Then it is a matter of compliance and not of ownership of our data. Companies decide which charities they pay, say 19% of their profits, and governments can give us 19% tax relief for using our data. Will this work and does anyone care? A straw poll of my children has swayed from my daughter Tigris’s condemnation of what I’m proposing, to my son Vien and spouse Elizabeth who use data to make their life seamless so find data intrusion of benefit in specific situations, to my partner’s daughter Alayna ambivalence “I don’t really care”. A blockchain data system could accommodate these broad spectrum of views.
* Opinions in this article are strictly my own. Art work by Tigris Ta’eed