Paddy’s Dangerous Idea No. 2

Following on from my post last week on Paddy’s Dangerous Idea No. 1, I am delving into his second proposal. Paddy argued:

We have long understood that property owning rights are one of the foundation stones of democracy. Yet each of us gives away our most intimate of property free and daily to the most powerful corporations, who make millions and millions from it. I am talking of course, about our personal data.

Why do we Lib Dems not assert the citizens right to own their own data and to have control over how it is used? Why about proposing a law – perhaps a European one – which says to Messrs Amazon, Google, Starbucks etc, that they can use our personal data for their commercial purposes, but only with our permission and if they give us a share of the profits. Can you think of anything which would more alter the relationship between these masters of the commercial universe and the customers whose information they exploit for such enormous profit? Can you think of anything which would more empower the citizen in the market place? Isn’t that what we Lib Dems are supposed to be about? So?

I really like this idea. Ownership of our own data gives us not only control over who does what with our data but means we can expect to be paid if others use our data, especially if they make money from it. It might seem radical, but it makes a lot of sense.

The arguments over whether we own our bodies and separated bodily material have been extensively debated. If we do own our bodies, shouldn’t our data also be owned by us – isn’t our data inherently who we are?

But often we agree to our data being used in order to sign up for services, without realising the value or significance of the information we are sharing. Databases worth vast sums of money are created using our data. We have no control over what is done with that information and little understanding of how the databases might be used as technologies develop. A good example is the giving of DNA samples to find out your ancestral history – your consent to their services in most cases means that companies get ownership of the DNA sequence you have handed over.

It is not only the data we give that we should own and control, but it is also the data that is harvested on our usage of internet sites, our online purchases, our social media preferences. That harvesting of data should be recompensed. Whenever companies are making money out of our data, a share of that profit should come to us. And we should have rights to stop our information being used for purposes we could not have foreseen.

I’d be very interested to hear others views on this idea and how we should take it forward.

Paddy’s Four Dangerous Ideas are talked about here.

* Kirsten Johnson was the PPC for Oxford East in the 2017 General Election. She is a pianist and composer at

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  • Daniel Carr 3rd Jan '19 - 9:19am

    Agree that – in aggregate – our data is quite useful to these companies. Not sure how mandating them to pay us for the data could work though. We already get access to amazing and free services that handing our data over fund the provision of. One recent study had the average Facebook user requiring more than $1,000 (USD) to deactivate their account for one year (see link below).

    I think it’s not wildly speculative to suggest that this amount (or something similar to it) is the value of such a service to most users. Getting it for free is surely worth something.

    So while I don’t have much time for Paddy’s ‘pay for our data’ idea, I do think we need to think harder about regulating services that become so entrenched that they exercise enormous political heft. There was an interesting thought experiment a while ago (second link) about Mark Zuckerberg running for US President. I think that would be a worrying scenario given the critical nature of Facebook to online and social communication these days (see link for further discussion as to why). So on politics there certainly needs to be better regulation with regard to the largest networking sites, and I’m hopeful that Clegg will help Facebook accept and navigate this.

    Probably the other answer to the data issue is to just mandate that your data must be portable in a way that uses an industry standard API. This is happening across the consumer utility space, largely due to work we helped kick-off during the Coalition. For instance, you can know download and access your energy use data and use that to find you the best deal – same with banking data. We could take that principle and apply it to networking sites like Facebook: events posted on Facebook (for instance) should (if public) have the underlying event data made public too that users on alternative platforms could then discover the event (should the alternative platform provider push through the event data into an event page on their service). That’s just an example, but I think making it easier for people to switch (and reducing the network effect monopoly power Facebook has) by making data more portable and fluid is a better solution.

  • Laurence Cox 3rd Jan '19 - 12:14pm


    There is already a company (YouGov) that uses this business model. By paying people small sums (usually 25p or 50p) to answer questions online they carry out opinion polling. The small sums build up until they reach £50 when they pay it into your bank account [I have no connection with YouGov apart from being one of its 1.2 million UK users].

    One could imagine online companies like Amazon or Facebook being requred to pay a small fee to a UK data registrar each time a UK resident used one of their services. For data protection purposes this would only include the identity of the user and not the transaction. It could then build up in an account and be paid out at suitable intervals, like the Public Lending Right payments for authors. As long as the transaction cost is much smaller than the fee this would be an effective way of returning money to the users. If we wanted to avoid a central registrar, then a distributed ledger approach (blockchain) could be the way forward.

  • Daniel Carr 3rd Jan '19 - 12:32pm

    @Laurence Cox

    YouGov’s business model is in no way relevant. In the absence of YouGov paying people to interact with it via filling out their surveys, no one would do it. Clearly not the case with Facebook etc.

  • OnceALibDem 3rd Jan '19 - 2:16pm

    “The answer to this proposal is blockchain. There are already a number of companies taking this initiative and working on solutions.”

    Evidence of this is less than comprehensive.

  • Absolutely agree with Andrew Sims. One of the main reasons for the very clear present failure of the economic system in the world is that if you are large enough, wealthy enough you can ignore little things like paying taxes.
    It is of course very dangerous for a political party in the U.K. to fight for them to be forced to pay taxes. I hear the E.U. has a good record of trying to bring them under control.
    Perhaps the Liberal Democrats could start campaigning for us the be members of the E.U.?

  • Tony Harris 4th Jan '19 - 2:31pm

    Just for the record, Amazon, Google, et. al do pay taxes. Amazon $1.4bn in 2017, Google Alphabet $4.7bn in 2017, Microsoft $3.3bn in 2017 etc. The problem is that they pay these in the USA and not in the UK. Part of the reason is the USAUK tax treaty which is in place to protect UK companies trading in the USA as much as it is the other way around (so many UK companies don’t pay corporation tax in the USA either), and part is down to tax planning of which Amazon is perhaps the most aggressive.

    As for having Google, Facebook, et al. pay to have access to our data you can’t have it both ways. Either you accept that these are free services in exchange for which you give up your data or you accept that you will have to pay for them. There is perhaps an argument to be made for two levels of service: (1) A subscription service where you keep your data private or (2) A free service where you give up data. However, how this would be managed (if even possible) i can’t begin to imagine which is probably why it’s never been offered. Bear in mind that every time you search for something you are contributing to the general data pool which benefits somebody else on their next search just as you have benefited on your last search. Also, isn’t the whole point about Facebook that your data is on show to friends and family (with some public)?

    Perhaps not one of Paddy’s better ideas?

  • Peter Hirst 4th Jan '19 - 4:05pm

    Owning your own persona data seems sensible and loaning it to others sometimes for a fee likewise. Fines for abusing personal data will help to remind users of this. Being unable to give your data to others would underline the principle and avoid efforts to mine it.

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