Would you pay to use Facebook? They may owe you money

Under questioning by joint Senate committees on Tuesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said something that should make every internet user smile:

“Every piece of content that you share on Facebook, you own.”

Zuckerberg only meant that users should control who sees their posts. But perhaps we should take him literally. What if personal data had a value like any other property? Shouldn’t owners of the data be compensated for its use?

Data is immensely valuable to internet companies, especially those that offer free services to users and make money through targeted advertising, such as Facebook and Google. But data is highly prized by other companies, too. Amazon parses search queries to figure out what products to show similar shoppers. It trains Alexa to become a better speaker and listener with users’ spoken instructions to their Amazon Echo home assistants.

Uber uses usage histories to improve its ride-matching service. Tesla collects images from cars using its “autopilot” feature to improve its vehicles’ autonomous capabilities.

Other internet companies log and analyze user data to improve product design, customer retention, and initiatives that help them earn revenue. In spite of this, data is not transparently accounted for on balance sheets.

Of course, your harvested data gives you the benefit of a tailored, customized online experience with ads targeted to your preferences. Facebook would argue that a free, personalized user experience is the value you get in exchange for them taking your data from you. But is that a fair exchange? Is the value you get equal to the benefit that Facebook gets?

Sheryl Sandberg this week even suggested — hypothetically, Facebook later said — charging the customer if data is withheld: If you refuse to share your data, you would have to pay to use Facebook. In one informal online Twitter poll (984 respondents), 83% said they would not pay Facebook in exchange for opting out of ads.

If this is true, a person’s data is worth more than the customized experience Facebook delivers.

The fact is, giving you something of value for your data is not new. When you go to Safeway or CVS, you may get a discount if you enter your phone number or swipe your store card upon checkout. But not at Facebook, or any other platform that uses your information to make a profit.

If, as Zuckerberg testified, your data is yours, perhaps we should recognize that people have a property interest in their own information. And if a corporation is using your personal information and data to make whopping profits, then perhaps that corporation should share the benefits with you: Call it revenue sharing for everyday people.

As artificial intelligence and connected devices seep into homes and workplaces, data collection in our lives is becoming ubiquitous. So it’s worth asking: In an era in which wealth and income inequality are glaringly persistent, should some technology companies continue to reap overwhelming profits while individuals on whose data they rely receive no compensation? How can we measure data’s worth?

These are questions worth asking.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Jon Tester said to Zuckerberg, “You said multiple times during this hearing that I own the data. … That sounds good, but in practice you’re making $40 billion a year. I’m not making money on it. It feels like you own the data.”

Maybe it’s time to make it clearer who owns your data, and what that property interest is worth.