Every time we open a web page, we are being monitored. Not by the people in our houses, nor by the government, nor private investigators, nor foreign agents—but by our devices themselves.
That’s because data is the most valuable resource on earth—more valuable than gold, oil, or diamonds—and everything we do is data. Companies like Meta, Twitter, and Alphabet harvest, track, and sell this data—an economy to the tune of three trillion dollars.
Many Texans are unaware that their data is being so used. When browsing online or on social media, it is easy to forget that these firms are constantly tracking us in the background. Yet whenever a user posts, tweets, or snaps, our data is quietly and unobtrusively gathered. While we nominally agree to this gathering in the terms and conditions, which only 9% of Americans read, for most practical purposes our data is being gathered without our knowledge and consent.
Since the time of our nation’s founding, American political philosophy has maintained that we own the fruits of our labor—so, since we create the data that’s being collected, it’s ours by right.
Many social media companies argue that since the data is publicly generated, it belongs to no one, and, thus, they are free to harvest it. While this may be true for certain types of public data—Twitter is free to record your handle and follower count without offering you any consideration—this by no means applies to all of the data they collect. Many companies, without our knowledge, collect far more data than just what is done on their site—something that, if not done with our explicit and informed consent, should be a clear violation of privacy, but also something that we have agreed to, buried in the terms of service.
Despite their obligation to provide a clear and fair contract to their users, online and social media terms of services are completely opaque to the vast majority of readers. It would take 250 hours—which amounts to over six weeks of standard work days—to read all the terms of services which an average internet user encounters.
Even if we had time to read them, the companies have written them so that only 12% of Americans would be able to easily understand the simplest ones.
The solution to restoring data property rights to their rightful owners starts with transparency. A key part of this transparency relies on the average American being able to understand who is buying what data about them, what’s being done with the data, and what control they have over the process. To provide for these animating principles of transparency and property ownership, comprehensive data privacy reform is a requisite.
Ultimately, the best way to ensure data transparency is by enacting a digital bill of rights for Texans. Such a bill would clearly establish the framework within which data transactions would take place.
We must own what we create for our market to be free. Indeed, the very concept of free markets and free enterprise is built on private property. Technology companies are certainly free to purchase our data from us if we consent to it, but only if they do it in a fair and transparent manner.