What’s your personal data worth?

While people are created equal, computers are not. When people share information freely, those who own the best computers benefit in extreme ways that are denied to everyone else. Those with the best computers can simply calculate wealth and power away from ordinary people.

It doesn’t matter if the best computers are said run schemes called high frequency trading firms, social media sites, national intelligence agencies, giant online stores, big political campaigns, insurance companies, or search engines. Leave the semantics aside and they’re all remarkably similar.

If the biggest computers had to pay for information, they wouldn’t cease to exist. Instead big computers would have to earn their way by providing new kinds of value. Spying and manipulating would no longer be business plans, because the raw materials would no longer be free.

Free information, as great as it sounds, will enslave us all.

Jaron Lanier is often alarmist and overly distrusting of anyone that isn’t a card-carrying EFF member, but I think he’s on to something here.

The idea of people valuing their personal data will become popular soon enough. I’ve been talking about it for a while. Last week I did a talk for AIMIA and got several questions from the audience about the viability of a future where consumers are aware of the value of their data and are willing to trade it. This hadn’t happened before, and hopefully it continues to happen more often.

Google and Facebook didn’t create $345B of market cap by digging anything out of the ground – they did it by digging the data out of the web, and selling it to advertisers. It’s a one-sided equation, and one that people are slowly starting to wise-up to.

This isn’t a new paradigm – we already know that people will trade their information for a 4c per litre discount off their petrol.

Within five years there should be a viable solution where regular people are able to offer their personal digital data to content providers (and in turn, advertisers) in exchange for free access, or some kind of material or financial reward. Startups like Rewind.me are already heading down this path.

It’s not quite the data-utopia that Lanier talks about, but it would be a good start.

- June 2013