Should Social Media Companies Pay Us For Our Data?

Apr 12, 2018
Originally published on April 12, 2018 5:29 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know, a lot of us are OK with giving away our data because it can make our life easier, right? We get directions. We get weather updates based on our location. We see ads for things that we actually really need. But here's a question. Should we be getting even more for our data? Stacey Vanek Smith, the co-host of The Indicator from Planet Money, explains.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, I spent Saturday afternoon watching YouTube videos about how to unclog a sink. And then I unclogged my sink. Then I was meeting a friend for dinner so I used Yelp to find a restaurant and Google Maps to figure out how to get to the restaurant. And, as I was walking there, the sun was setting and it was really beautiful so I took a photo of it and posted it on Instagram because, you know, Instagram has a shortage of sunset photos. And I didn't pay for any of this, and it was valuable stuff. A plumber for the sink? At least a hundred dollars. A restaurant guide? Ten dollars. A map of New York? Three dollars. A roll of film and prints for all my friends? It added up to about $130. A hundred-and-30 dollars of goods and services, for free. Of course, it wasn't really free. I was paying with my data. Or, maybe I wasn't paying. Maybe I was working. That is according to Glen Weyl. He's an economist at Yale and author of "Radical Markets."

GLEN WEYL: Data is something that is useful to companies in producing products that we all like. It is incredibly intimate, and it belongs powerfully to us. So all of those traits sound a lot to me like labor.

SMITH: Glen says when we hand our data over to Google or Snapchat, we're helping them create a better product, and they should pay us for that. In fact, Glen says it is bad for the economy that we are not getting paid for all of our tweeting and Instagramming. Take Facebook and Walmart. Facebook is worth about twice as much as Walmart by market capitalization, but Walmart has more than a million employees in the United States. So the money Walmart makes is spread out over a lot of people. It's really dispersed throughout the economy. Facebook, on the other hand, only has about 25,000 workers. So the money Facebook makes goes to way fewer people, and that money does not get out into the economy in quite the same way. Glen says that is because Facebook is getting people to work for free. Millions of us are creating value for Facebook every day. Facebook and its employees get wealthier, but most of us don't.

WEYL: That's a pretty bleak future, right? That's a future where the overwhelming majority of money is going to accrue to a few entrepreneurs and the owners of wealth rather than to workers.

SMITH: Glen says technology will replace a lot of jobs, and as people try to evolve and adapt to the new economy, it will be even more important that their role as wealth creators and workers is acknowledged and compensated.

WEYL: I want to see companies compete and say to people, look, you shouldn't be taken advantage of. We will pay you a fair price for your data. I want to see people get aware, cyberwoke (ph).

SMITH: Get cyberwoke. Glen's point is this. When I am Yelping restaurants and posting sunset photos, I am creating wealth for those companies. And as the data becomes a bigger part of the economy, that time we spend on Facebook and Snapchat will become even more valuable, and we should get a cut. Glen estimates most of us should be getting roughly a thousand dollars a year for our troubles. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.