Leaving the Data Dark Ages

Property rights have protected and empowered individuals for millennia, evolving as technology does. Just as the printing revolution brought intellectual property rights and the Industrial Revolution popularized the patent system, the digital revolution must bring the right to personal data ownership.

PARIS – During the High Medieval Period, from the eleventh to the thirteenth century, serfs in France had no property rights. Instead, those with land had to hand over most of what they produced to the local seigneur (lord) who could confiscate their land upon their death (“mainmorte”). In return, they did receive services, such as protection from conflict and access to a mill or village oven. They had little choice: opting out of the deal and, say, building their own mill would have been strictly forbidden. This dynamic arrangement – which continued until the French Revolution, when peasants gained full property rights – looks a lot like consumers’ relationships with Internet firms today.

In this age of digital feudalism, we have little choice but to agree, with one click, to an impenetrably long and convoluted set of terms and conditions, which subjects us to constant monitoring by the platforms we use. The platforms collect our personal data and sell them to many more actors, including advertising companies that can then serve us targeted ads.

For Internet firms, this is a highly lucrative practice: the value of users’ personal data is expected to reach 8% of European GDP by 2020. In exchange, the firms offer “free services,” such as social media, to the digital serfs who produce the data.

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