Should Facebook pay us for our puppy pictures?
Of course, the idea sounds crazy. Posting puppies on Facebook is not a chore. We love it: Facebook’s 1.4 billion daily users spend the better part of an hour on it every day. It’s amazing that we don’t have to pay for it.
And yet the idea is gaining momentum in Silicon Valley and beyond: Facebook and the other technological Goliaths offering free online services — from which they harvest data from and about their users — should pay for every nugget of information they reap.
The spring break pictures on Instagram, the YouTube video explaining Minecraft tactics, the internet searches and the Amazon purchases, even your speed following Waze on the way to spend Thanksgiving with your in-laws — this data is valuable. It will become more valuable, potentially much more so, in the not-too-distant future.
Getting companies to pay transparently for the information will not just provide a better deal for the users whose data is scooped up as they go about their online lives. It will also improve the quality of the data on which the information economy is being built. And it could undermine the data titans’ stranglehold on technology’s future, breathing fresh air into an economy losing its vitality.
The idea has been around for a bit. Jaron Lanier, the tech philosopher and virtual-reality pioneer who now works for Microsoft Research, proposed it in his 2013 book, “Who Owns the Future?,” as a needed corrective to an online economy mostly financed by advertisers’ covert manipulation of users’ consumer choices.
It is being picked up in “Radical Markets,” a book due out shortly from Eric A. Posner of the University of Chicago Law School and E. Glen Weyl, principal researcher at Microsoft. And it is playing into European efforts to collect tax revenue from American internet giants.
In a report obtained last month by Politico, the European Commission proposes to impose a tax on the revenue of digital companies based on their users’ location, on the grounds that “a significant part of the value of a business is created where the users are based and data is collected and processed.”
Users’ data is a valuable commodity. Facebook offers advertisers precisely targeted audiences based on user profiles. YouTube, too, uses users’ preferences to tailor its feed. Still, this pales in comparison with how valuable data is about to become, as the footprint of artificial intelligence extends across the economy.
Data is the crucial ingredient of the A.I. revolution. Training systems to perform even relatively straightforward tasks like voice translation, voice transcription or image recognition requires vast amounts of data — like tagged photos, to identify their content, or recordings with transcriptions.
“Among leading A.I. teams, many can likely replicate others’…
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