A personal homecoming at the University of Michigan

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.

And, thankfully, the tools and rules to make that happen are finally emerging – like the digi.me Private Sharing platform and the UBDI monetization app (which debuted in beta while I was in Ann Arbor).

Click to watch the full length presentation with Q&A (41 min)

Don’t be fooled by Silicon Valley’s privacy shell game

Here is the text of Shane’s Op-Ed, which appeared in today’s Washington Examiner.

Congress confronted privacy and personal data rights in a pair of hearings last week. This week, Mark Zuckerberg announced a “privacy pivot” at Facebook, yet failed to propose a single tangible reform of its core business.

Zuckerberg’s privacy manifesto illustrates the core problem. Big tech companies such as Facebook have no real interest in changing their practices. Their entire business model is based on owning and exploiting personal data to manipulate people and sell advertising. They’ll defend that at all costs.

AP – Shane Green on Facebook’s “lip service” to privacy

The ongoing series of privacy scandals and last year’s high profile hearings led the Silicon Valley giants, including Facebook, to hire a small army of lobbyists. Although there has been no new legislation yet, data privacy reform is in the air, and the jockeying behind the scenes is telling.

Facebook’s position and the overall surveillance-based business model has become impossible to defend. With few straightforward options, the lobbyists for the social network and other tech behemoths are now trying to manufacture a partisan crack in what is clearly a bipartisan issue with the hope that they can co-opt the regulatory process as a result.

Even more troubling than watered-down privacy legislation that creates an appearance of accountability and enforcement is the possibility that regulations will create significant new compliance costs. This would allow these data oligopolies to further entrench their dominance against startups and new entrants to the market. Facebook can simply absorb the new costs, while smaller companies and startups, many of whom are starting to emerge with innovative tools to empower people with their data, would be boxed out.

The other focal point of their strategy is to deny state-level activism and innovation. This strategy started last September, when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Internet Association released ten new “privacy principles.” The very first of these principles, which has been echoed nonstop since, was to call for “a single federal privacy law.” While it’s reasonable to demand a unified national approach to privacy, it is far too early to defang state-based privacy laws such as the one in California, which the industry fought before losing handily in a public referendum.

California has, in fact, been a national leader on privacy issues, and their popular law goes a long way toward returning control to consumers. It takes the practices of big companies out of the shadows, which is the first step toward empowerment. It isn’t perfect, but it marked an important and awakened many to the abuses and dangers of the current “click here so we can own your data” model.

Under the newly elected Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, California appears poised to continue to lead on this issue. I don’t think anyone has fully processed the significance of Newsom’s calls for a “digital dividend” in his State of the State address earlier this month. This was one of the first real acknowledgments from a major public figure that trillions of dollars in wealth is being created by companies from users’ personal data, and that those same users have a right to a piece of that pie and to ensure that their data is being used for and not against them.

Of course companies that are making trillions of dollars off of private data are going to resist efforts to let others wrangle their cash cows. But the next time Zuckerberg or another Silicon Valley executive is hauled before Congress to defend data practices, which will likely happen in the coming months, we need to make sure we don’t fall for their shell game.

It’s long past time for power over data to be put back in the hands of the users to whom it belongs. I hope that Congress uses that principle as their starting point and their end goal. We need real action, not empty Facebook posts.

Shane Green is CEO of the private data sharing company digi.me and co-founder of UBDI, a consumer-controlled market research and data monetization community. He blogs at shanegreen.org and you can follow him on Twitter @shanegreen.

Nearly 50% of Californians already support getting paid for their data according to USA Today (26% want to learn more)

Every week brings another sign that consumers are coming around to the idea of making money off of their own data. USA Today’s Marco della Cava went in depth on the issue in a feature story today on California Governor Gavin Newsom’s call for a Digital Dividend, which you can read here.

The article commissioned original research showing that 45% of Californians already support getting “a share of profits from company use of user data.” Fully 26% were undecided and probably needed more specifics before deciding. And it’s fair to assume the 28% against the idea assumed the worst given current industry practices – that their private data would be sold to the highest bidder (which is not the case).

That’s an overwhelmingly positive response out of the gate for the California governor. The article also covers both UBDI and digi.me and the work we are doing to help make this possible. It’s an exciting time to be working on such a game changing problem.

California Governor calls for a “Digital Dividend”

I spoke to AdWeek about Gov. Newsom’s call for a Digital Dividend. You can read it here.

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.

Why I co-founded UBDI

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.

Meet UBDI

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.

Marc Benioff, Tim Cook and Roger McNamee change the data and privacy game. Plus, a challenge to Acxiom – give users their data!

This week’s Time magazine cover feature on privacy, data and Facebook marks another milestone on the path to a new, fairer more transparent model. Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce and new owner of Time, wasted no time in shining a light on this critical subject.

The column by Tim Cook is the biggest line drawn in the sand yet by Cook and Apple, who are declaring war on the surveillance economy that online advertising requires. It also strikes at the heart of two of their biggest competitors – Facebook and Google.

In addition to supporting a call for new privacy laws, Cook writes:

“But laws alone aren’t enough to ensure that individuals can make use of their privacy rights. We also need to give people tools that they can use to take action.”

Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook and mentor to Mark Zuckerberg, writes an even more damning piece about his difficult decision to call out Facebook executives and ask for them to be held accountable. The article (and his book Zucked) reads like a Silicon Valley version of Frankenstein.

“When I sent that email to Zuck and Sheryl, I assumed that Facebook was a victim. What I learned in the months that followed–about the 2016 election, about the spread of Brexit lies, about data on users being sold to other groups–shocked and disappointed me. It took me a very long time to accept that success had blinded Zuck and Sheryl to the consequences of their actions.”

In a bizarre and frankly concerning response to the Time articles, Acxiom announced yesterday that they were ready to embrace GDPR-like rules in the United States. They all but invented the data broker industry Time magazine focuses on, and were featured as a “privacy deathstar” by the the Financial Times.

If Acxiom getting religion on privacy sounds unlikely to you, you aren’t alone. In fact, I’m deeply concerned about companies like them trying to co-opt potential privacy legislation in the United States to both protect themselves and to block innovative privacy models like ours at digi.me, as I discussed with AdWeek just yesterday.

I have personally asked Acxiom many times, including directly to their board of directors, to make a downloadable copy of their digital profile data available to consumers. GDPR in Europe now requires it, and it’s called data portability. The answer has always been no.

If Acxiom wants to prove they are on the digital road to Damascus, they should make their data available to consumers. Every consumer could download a complete, reusable copy of the data Acxiom has about them – thousands of detailed data points.

At digi.me, we have the proven tools to let consumers download exactly this kind of data securely and privately – and to use however they choose (we don’t touch, hold or see data). We’ll do all the work, and won’t even charge for it.

Acxiom, it’s never been easier to prove that you’ve changed.

It’s business as usual for privacy at the US Chamber of Commerce and Internet Association

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.