I was invited by the University of Michigan’s School of Engineering and Center for Entrepreneurship to give a “Ted Talk” on my entrepreneurial journey and how I came to be so passionate about empowering people with their data, privacy and identity.
I wrote one of my first blog posts in 2010 about the origins of my thinking when I was a student around concerns of “being defined by others,” so I really enjoyed this special chance to share my story. I’ve never been more convinced that our data-driven future depends on each of us having agency over our data and identity.
California Governor Gavin Newsom called for a “Digital Dividend” in his State of the State address this past week. He didn’t offer specifics, saying only that he is instructing his staff to study the idea. But the point was as clear as the Silicon Valley sky – he wants California citizens to participate in the trillions of dollars of wealth being created by companies from their personal data.
I was caught by surprise by the proposal and Newsom’s use of the term Digital Dividend, but not by the idea itself. I’ve been working on this concept for a decade, and have been recently calling it Universal Basic Data Income – the part of UBI derived from one’s own data. I’m currently working on a startup called UBDI that is trying to prove that people can ethically and sustainably earn hundreds and then thousands of dollars a year from their data (built on the digi.me Private Sharing platform).
I love the concept of a Digital Dividend, and the precedents it evokes such as the oil dividend in Alaska. Gov. Newsom’s proposal is a critical development in this movement. No US political leader of his magnitude, much less the leader of the state with the most wealth creation from personal data, has made such a bold declaration.
I spoke to AdWeek about his proposal this week and why this is different from all the other calls for better privacy laws. The idea was so unexpected that the usual industry advocates like the US Chamber of Commerce and the Internet Association haven’t even responded. I’m not sure they know what to make of the idea. Maybe that’s a good thing. I’d hate to have to explain why people should keep being cut out of their fair share of the mega profits derived from the data they produce.
The time is finally right for people to ethically monetize their own data
In 2011, I called data “a new form of currency” in an interview with Julia Angwin and Emily Steel of The Wall Street Journal. I strongly believed that people had a right to participate in the economics of the data they produced, perhaps even the lion’s share.
I was building the personal data platform Personal at the time (now part of digi.me – a partner of UBDI) and found the response by consumers and the media overwhelmingly positive. If data was indeed the new oil, what if we were each sitting on our own reservoir that just needed to be tapped?
I was not surprised that Silicon Valley insiders scoffed at the idea. In addition to threatening their business model – Facebook was in the process of filing for their IPO based almost entirely on exploiting the personal data they captured – they argued that data was not valuable at an individual level, which was largely true then. Others derided individuals themselves, saying that they could never understand the concept of data – or manage it effectively if they did.
There was an even louder chorus of detractors who said privacy was dead. One brand-name VC backing Facebook told me quite bluntly “it’s just a matter of time for dinosaurs like you to die off.”
Consumer and privacy groups were often just as cynical. One article in direct response to me even said that selling your own data was “like selling body parts.” I’ve heard similar reactions just this week from a few alarmists in response to initial coverage of UBDI.
I understand the concerns, but they are dead wrong. Nothing is more important to our future than taking control over the economics of the data we produce. After a decade working on the problem, I think we’ve finally cracked the code.
UBDI is a startup building a new community of individuals, developers and companies who are committed to working together to ethically monetize data. In the first phase, UBDI has a bulls-eye on the $50 billion market research industry, where aggregated insights and trends are most important – not data about individual people. Other industries will follow, making the addressable market many times larger – not counting the market cap of the companies based on that data.
Similar to the ideas around Universal Basic Income, we believe that individuals will be able to receive hundreds and potentially thousands of dollars annually from ethically monetizing the data they produce – what we call Universal Basic Data Income.
The company is creating an asset- and revenue-backed digital currency, called UBDI, that has the potential not just to let individuals participate in their share of the community profits each year, but also the future value of the community’s data – kind of like an equity.
In short, UBDI members are coming after both the revenue and the capitalized value of their data.
Here’s our announcement this week, as well as a great initial piece by the Daily Mail. And here’s a short video of how it will work when UBDI’s consumer app launches in the spring (please join the waitlist now to earn 1,000 bonus tokens and to show the market research community your willingness to participate)
I would add that I’m blown away by my co-founders, Dana Budzyn, who is CEO, and Mark Kilaghbian, Chief Product Officer. They have rich personal histories that led them to decide to start UBDI.
Dana spoke about how a health condition led her on this journey in a powerful TEDx video that I’ve included below. Mark hosts the most popular crypto podcast on iTunes, called Cryptoconomy, which resulted in part from being being a successful early crypto trader in his teens and in college and then being a victim of the Mt. Gox hack. They are joined by CTO Harun Smkrovic, a rock star developer who helped build Personal and, more recently, a popular crypto wallet.
We are also lucky to be partnered with digi.me, where I still run North American operations and help oversee the development of our app and startup ecosystem. Many thanks to digi.me founder Julian Ranger, CEO Rory Donnelly and the entire digi.me team. Tarik Kurspahic, EVP of Technology at digi.me, also serves on the advisory board of UBDI. UBDI simply wouldn’t be possible without digi.me’s private sharing technology.
It’s worth noting that we will soon be launching a major initiative for developers who want to build apps on UBDI – or integrate their existing apps. Apps can be both free for users and profitable without having to exploit data for advertising. More to come on that shortly.
Finally, we are grateful to our other advisers, including Georgetown Law professor Itai Grinberg, who is figuring out how taxes will work in UBDI, David Nayer, COO of crypto ride sharing company Arcade City, and the many hundreds of people who have advised us as we set out to build this community recently and over the past decade.
All it takes is 1 million people to sign up to prove that we can change the business model of the internet! Please sign up for our waitlist now at ubdi.co.
The following Digital Bill of Rights was crowdsourced at SXSW in Austin, TX on March 11, 2012 at a session I led with Anne Bezancon (then CEO of Placecast, now part of Ericsson) called “We the People: Creating a Consumer’s Bill of Rights.” It seems like a timely reminder that many of the current issues we are struggling with in terms of privacy, transparency and control of data are far from new, and that the issues they touch in our lives are as fundamental and transcendent as those covered in the original Bill of Rights.
The packed session at SXSW included participants ranging from privacy experts to advertising and internet executives. Despite the different viewpoints, we concluded that we could not rely on companies or governments to determine these right for us any more than the Founding Fathers relied on King George or the British East India Company to do so on their behalf. The attempt to make them go viral online fell short…at least to date.
The group also believed the rights to be so interconnected that they needed to be considered together – each reinforcing and providing context for the other. The rights do not cover each and every right or code of conduct that we believed should exist, but were designed to be a minimum set of rights that would create a the basis for a safer, fairer and more innovative digital world.
Finally, like all rights, we anticipated that there would be occasions and contexts where such rights might be limited or waived. But we asked ourselves in selecting each of them if we wanted a world where such rights did not exist and were not the default: Where there was no right to transparency, no right to privacy, no right to choice and control, etc.? Our answer was unequivocally no.
Digital Bill of Rights
March 11, 2012 – Austin, TX
This Digital Bill of Rights applies to the sanctity of the digital self
The digital self should be afforded equal standing as the physical self before the law and society
1. Right to transparency
I have the right to know who collects, uses, shares, or monetizes my data and how they do so
I have the right to know how my data is protected and secured
I have the right to know the value of my data
2. Right to privacy
I have the right to privacy by default
3. Right to choice and control
I have the right to give and withdraw permission to collect, use, share or monetize my data
I have the right to view, access, correct, edit, verify, export and delete my data
I have the right to own and/or use freely the “golden copy” of my data
I have the right to buy the product or app and not “be the product”
4. Right to safety
I have the right to expect my data to be stored and transported securely
5. Right to identity
I have the right to have different personas in context
I have the right to anonymity
6. Right to minimal use
I have the right to have my data collected, used, shared or monetized only for the specified purpose and context
I have the right to be forgotten after my data has served its purpose
Social media analytics apps like Hootsuite and Buffer have largely been the domain of marketers. The average person has no idea what time of day their posts get the most engagement — or which day of the week. They have no concept of which content over the last year received the most likes, comments or shares — other than the fact your friends and family from opposite political views have finally disengaged. The problem gets even harder trying to track that across social networks.
The new Sand app, powered by digi.me’s Private Sharing technology, provides dozens of personal analytics on social data from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Flickr. It just launched in the App Store. We’d love to know what you think.
The first video below is a short overview of the app itself, featuring my own analytics. Not surprisingly, my World Cup posts beat out my best thoughts on data and privacy in total reach and engagement, but the granular detail of my hashtags, mentions and even keywords was fascinating and enlightening.
The second video features a conversation with digi.me EVP for Technology Tarik Kurspahic. It explains what’s happening between the secure digi.me library, where my raw social data lives, and the algorithms and analytics inside the Sand app. You’ll find out how such powerful “edge processing” is done and the basics of “app to app private sharing.” I think you’ll enjoy it whether you are new to privacy and data — or if you are a founder or developer looking to build a new app based on your own ideas (digi.me has over 15,000 sources of data to choose from via a single SDK).
With the exception of a call for greater transparency around how companies collect and use data — a growing bi-partisan, public-private sector bright spot in the American debate on privacy — the US Chamber of Commerce’s ten new privacy principles and the Internet Association’s almost identical principlesreleased today reflect long-standing industry hostility towards effective government regulation and privacy more broadly. The principles are mostly an extension of the “trust us to do the right thing” argument they’ve been making for years, which have failed miserably.
The Chamber’s very first principle to prohibit state laws altogether on the subject is a not-so-subtle swipe at the popular new law on privacy in California, which industry fought tooth and nail. While imperfect, the law marked an important watershed in popular awakening to the abuses and dangers of the current “click here so we can own your data” model. The Chamber goes on to say in this first principle that “the United States already has a history of robust privacy protection,” which, in addition to being downright cynical and wrong, signals a new round of opposition to meaningful government oversight or intervention.
Their principle on harm-focused enforcement is another clearly outdated and limited approach, as is the call to prohibit individuals from being able to bring an action based on an infringement of their privacy. Together, they completely marginalize us as citizens and consumers, and ask us to trust the system to work on our behalf.
Meanwhile, the Internet Association has loopholes and doublespeak galore. Almost all references to data rights are bounded by phrases like “personal information they have provided,” which often amounts to less than 1% of data collected or purchased by companies. The coup de grace: “individuals should have meaningful controls over how personal information they provide to companies is collected, used, and shared, except where that information is necessary for the basic operation of the business…” When the entire business is predicated on advertising or personalized content and services, I’m not sure what is left really.
As a skeptic myself toward most prescriptive government regulations — I’d rather see innovative new tools and business models solve market and societal failures wherever possible — I spent years watching how utterly incapable industry is of reforming itself when it comes to data and privacy. There is simply too much money and power tied to them while all of the negative externalities fall on us as users — a textbook market failure.
That led me, in addition to my startup efforts on privacy, to work on a number of initiatives that helped create the principles and specifics for the new EU regulations known as GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). These laws, also imperfect, not only aim to curb current abuses, they mandate far greater transparency and provide a roadmap for a fairer and more sustainable data and privacy model built around the rights of individuals about how their data is used.
Criticized for stifling innovation, GDPR is actually doing the opposite — it is catalyzing the private sector to start building new services that empower people directly with their data, competing both over how much value they can create for users if given access to their data while also showing what good stewards they can be of that data. It’s turning the “race to the bottom” we’ve seen around data and privacy into a much more enlightened and compelling “race to the top.”
Not surprisingly, the Chamber and most US companies have not been fans of GDPR. The lip service given in the principles to “privacy innovation” is a far cry from the vision and efforts underway in Europe, and nowhere do they reference our rights as citizens or consumers. In fact, as mentioned earlier, they only seek to limit those rights.
The most concerning potential development is the use of regulation shaped by these industry lobbying groups to further entrench their power and disadvantage startups and newcomers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and others have been sounding the alarm on that possibility, and my read on the recent Congressional hearings by Facebook and Twitter is that this is their new strategy. In fact, the degree to which these privacy principles mimic the principles of GDPR while undermining them at every turn is nothing short of dastardly.
To conclude on a positive note, transparency is the single most important key to addressing the worst abuses around privacy and to unlocking a private sector competition to do right by users and their data. Despite 20 years with the curtains drawn tight around data collection and exploitation by industry, it’s simply un-American to stand against greater transparency — which is why both Republicans and Democrats are in favor of it.
Embracing the Chamber’s and the Internet Association’s call for transparency is the perfect jujitsu opportunity for those of us who want to see a more pro-user, pro-privacy model emerge. The real battle will be over just how far it goes, over how much we truly get to see and understand how our data is collected and for what purpose. Once that genie is out of the bottle, we can expect the private sector to get back to what it does best — creating even more incredible data-driven services that truly meet our needs and interests.
I know that’s kind of a bold statement – and likely to ruffle the feathers of our blockchain-loving, decentralized-worshiping friends. But we are excited to announce the official launch of digi.me’s app store (little “a”, little “s”), which you can find at digi.me/share. (And our architecture is almost entirely decentralized and distributed…with just a few points of centralization to make sure it actually works and is secure.)
There just isn’t a better way to tell you what we are up to than that. Imagine developers building apps in a matter of days with the ability to request data from over 15,000 different sources from users – all with cutting edge privacy and security protections. And, more importantly if you’re a developer – all using one SDK! Yes, a single integration for more normalized, structured data than you can probably handle.
This is the realization of a dream I have personally been working on for over 8 years. Probably the most infuriating response I’ve heard from Silicon Valley during that time is that people really don’t care about privacy because they keep using online services like Facebook and Google. That’s like saying people don’t care about clean air because they keep breathing.
The simple fact is that easy-to-use tools and apps designed from the ground up with privacy in mind (called “privacy by design”) just haven’t been available. That’s about to change. And we hope you’ll reach out to help us make certain it does. Whether you’re a developer, regulator, corporate CEO or concerned citizen, we’d love to hear what you think…and show you what we’re up to.