Matt Hogan wants to give you $10 a month in exchange for all of your personal data. Your Facebook likes. Your tweets. Your instagrams. Even your spending history. Everything about you, in other words, that’s digitally accessible.
Whether or not that sounds like a fair exchange, Hogan’s offer is better than zero, which is what we generally get paid for our data now — and that’s the reason many consumers just might be intrigued. After all, with Facebook, Google, and other companies making money off of every search-engine query and social media post they can get their hands on, isn’t it about time the people who generate all their data get a cut of the revenue it generates?
“There’s no other asset class [other than personal data] where the chief stakeholder has zero rights at the negotiating table,” Hogan argues.
That’s set to change if DataCoup, Hogan’s nascent “personal data marketplace,” succeeds. After a months-long beta, and a waiting list of over 10,000 prospective users, the finished product is set to be released to the public on Thursday. The free platform connects to a multitude of data sources, from social networks to bank accounts. DataCoup customers can then learn about the information they’ve connected through data visualizations, choose which data to sell, and to whom they wish to sell it.
The company says it will pay users based on what information they provide, with a maximum of $10 a month to start. As of now, DataCoup has no buyers for its data and is paying for user information out of pocket. However, Hogan says multiple parties have expressed interest in partnering with DataCoup if the platform is a success. He anticipates the price of personal data increasing as more companies become buyers, with compensation coming in the form of both cash and various coupons and discounts.
A Viable Business Model?
DataCoup didn’t exactly invent the idea of DIY data sales. Jaron Lanier, author of Who Owns the Future? has long argued that users of services like Google and Facebook should not only be monetarily compensated for their data but for the content they post as well. After all, there would be no Twitter without our tweets.
Hogan isn’t even the first person to try building a company around this concept. Various entrepreneurs, going back about a decade, have tried to let consumers take control of and sell their online information. In 2005, for example, an entrepreneur named Seth Goldstein penned a sort of privacy manifesto—”A Declaration of Gestural Independence”—that outlined four basic rights for the so-called attention market: the right to own your data, move your data, see how the data is being used, and to be paid for whatever information you choose to release. At the same time, he and a few like-minded technologists founded AttentionTrust.org with the hopes of achieving his treatise’s goals.
Out of this project came Root Vault, a browser extension that recorded its user’s browsing habits, ready to be sold if its owner so desired. Goldstein was never able to build a large enough user base to create a sustainable business, however, and his major data customers—mortgage brokers looking for potential leads—were destroyed by the housing crisis. Eventually, both RootVault and AttentionTrust shut down.
Today, Goldstein realizes most people prefer convenience to privacy. RootVault “was trying to create a solution to a problem that people didn’t feel acutely,” Goldstein told MONEY. “People don’t feel viscerally the issue of their data being exposed and monetized without their direct knowledge.” Even with new technology that makes sharing your data with a broker easier than ever, he thinks selling one’s own information remains a hassle that’s not worth the modest monetary reward.
One reason that reward is so modest is that companies own large portions of your data already. Columbia Business School professor Oded Netzer doesn’t doubt the value of the average consumer’s internet activity, but wonders if businesses don’t already have all the information they need. “The question is whether there is still value for additional data that can be sold,” notes Netzer.
Despite the naysayers, DataCoup remains unfazed. In order to make its value clearer, the company has put together a video series with experts from different fields describing alternatively utopian and dystopian visions of how the personal data economy might work in 2016. The upshot: Unless consumers take control of their data, both business and average Joes will suffer. “We’re really focused on educating people on why their data is so important,” explains Hogan.
The DataCoup founder agrees past attempts have failed, but thinks Edward Snowden’s disclosures, which revealed extensive NSA surveillance, have changed how consumers think about privacy. “Snowden opened up the psyche of consumers and made them realize they’re giving away data every time they do anything,” said Hogan. “Sometimes they get enough stuff in return, and sometimes they don’t.”