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California data dividend sounds nice but shows digital economy ignorance

The State of California might be making friends in Silicon Valley with its defence of net neutrality rules, but in proposing a ‘data dividend’ on the digital economy, these kinships might turn sour very quickly.

In his ‘State of the State’ speech this week, California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed a new ‘data dividend’ which would see internet players who monetise user’s personal information have to pay those users for the privilege, according to CNBC. This might sound like a lovely idea to share the wealth, but you can guarantee Silicon Valley is going to throw a temper tantrum about this.

“California’s consumers should also be able to share in the wealth that is created from their data,” said Newsom.

Aside from the revolt from the likes of Google and Facebook which is bound to be on the horizon, Newsom has joined the long list of politicians who are demonstrating they don’t understand how the digital economy functions. Social media platforms or video hosting websites are offered for free to the consumer because data is taken as payment. The value exchange is a free service for the permission to monetise personal data.

While this might sound like an excellent way for Newsom to score political points with the voters of California, you have to wonder how the internet players are going to react. There will of course be intense lobbying, but should the proposal make it into the rulebook, will services continue to be offered for free? Perhaps the internet players will replace lost revenues created by the digital dividend with a paywall?

Some politicians appear to be very anti-profit when it comes to the internet players, seemingly believing platforms like Facebook and Twitter are a public service not private corporations with shareholders to keep happy. These are companies which should of course be held accountable when it comes to data privacy and protection standards, but the value exchange in the digital economy has been accepted as a business model which benefits both sides of the equation.

This is not the first time such an idea has been aired, though rarely has it floated out of such senior political offices. The profits which flow into Silicon Valley are being attacked from numerous sides currently, but you also have to ask what others impacts there will be on the development of the digital economy.

One of the reasons the technology industry has been advancing so quickly in recent years is the aggressive investments which have been made in R&D by Silicon Valley. The likes of Amazon and Google are certainly not shy about searching for the next big idea, fully embracing the concept of fail-fast, but the confidence in these investments exists partly because of the commercial successes of the core business models. Sustained erosion of these revenue channels might well result in smaller R&D operations.

Not only will this slow down improvements to customer experience, it could also place speed bumps in-front of momentum. The US technology industry is advancing very quickly, with some truly wonderful and ludicrous ideas being explored (See Google’s Loon), but this progress could stutter when you attack the ways these companies make money.

The battle between Silicon Valley and rule makers is raging for several reasons. The internet companies have been caught with their pants down in the data protection and privacy realms, though their resistance to collaboration is antagonising politicians. Silicon Valley is desperately trying to side-road and resist any new rules to govern the digital economy, as any major corporation would, but these rules are of course critical for positive societal development. The more Silicon Valley resists, the more aggressive proposals will be put forward.

We strongly agree with the calls to increase regulation on the digital economy, but you have to pick your battles. What would be the benefit to the user with these rules? A couple of dollars a year, nothing which will turn heads, but what will be the consequences?

Hold the internet players to more stringent data protection rules. Enforce more consent regulations. Ensure these companies pay fair and reasonable tax. But destroying a generally accepted way to make money will probably not end well. We suspect this might be a net loss in the long-run.


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