These days, every footprint we leave online can be monetized. This notion first struck me when I established my data firm, Chengtai, in 2010. At that time, our fine-tuned data mapping technology enabled my company to recruit clients for a local commercial bank, bringing in 100 yuan (then about $16) in commission for each deal. Our streamlined and precise service allowed the bank to mail credit cards to new customers the same day they applied. Since then, we’ve gathered abundant data on millions of people, including their jobs, annual incomes, and education levels.
My company has evolved substantially over the years. Now, we no longer merely gather personal data like everybody else but are also determined to become the first company in China to turn data into digital assets that could potentially generate money for private citizens.
From grocery lists to holiday destinations, utility bills to bank statements, job applications to medical records — the data lining our digital trail is being tracked by too many corporations and institutions. The abuse of private data has led to unprecedented numbers of complaints. In Feburary, a survey by CYL-affiliated newspaper China Youth Daily found that nearly 70 percent of around 2,000 respondents thought internet companies had leaked their personal information. In addition, the majority of respondents called for stronger legal protection of their private data. To date, however, neither personal caution nor an official clampdown has prevented data abusers from ruining people’s lives.
While citizens and companies tend to disagree about who owns and uses digital assets — particularly data from private citizens — there is a consensus building that such data should belong to their creators and not their collectors. In addition, companies operating big data services should not be able to sell this data to third-party clients without the prior consent of the creators. But to transform private data from a commodity into an asset, each of us needs to have the power to authorize the commercial use of our data. To that end, both China and the EU have made progress in creating legislation recognizing the private ownership of personal data.
In April 2016, after four years of deliberation, the European Parliament passed a landmark bill on the protection of private citizens with regard to the processing and free movement of personal data. Among the citizens’ rights highlighted in the General Data Protection Regulation, creators of personal data are entitled to demand that corporate or individual collectors delete their data once the creator no longer wants it shared. In addition, data collectors must, upon request, ensure that all third-party data users have completely deleted the data they have received.
China’s cybersecurity law, which took effect in June, provides guidelines for the protection of private data and the duties of collectors who store, process, use, or transfer data. In June 2016, the country’s top legislators also discussed awarding legal protection to virtual property and digital information, including online personal data and virtual currencies like bitcoin. But before the finer details are ironed out, members of the Internet Society of China — a trade council for China’s internet firms — have been encouraged to “voluntarily preserve the lawful rights of their consumers and keep their data confidential.”
Another legal right — highlighted in EU regulations but not yet implemented in China — relates to the free transfer of data from one controller to another at the request of the data owner. At present, it’s easy enough to deposit assets, in the form of money, in one bank and withdraw it from another. But it’s far more difficult, if not downright impossible, to transfer personal data between, say, JD.com and Taobao, China’s two largest online marketplaces. In such cases, why do big data companies serve major corporations but not private consumers? Why can’t we conveniently move our data between platforms and freely demand that it be deleted whenever we feel like it?
I repeat: Your digital trail is worth huge amounts of money to corporations and other institutions. Yet you never get to share in its value. Not only that, you barely know who collects it, who sells it, and who buys it. In addition, your data lie so scattered across the internet that nobody has the power to see it all.
For this reason, I’ve designed what is potentially the world’s first digital data bank. Users can choose to enter their data into our system in response to a set task — for example, providing personal information to an online shopping platform or an insurance company. This so-called digital labor earns them credits on their data that, in turn, go to a private account in the digital data bank.
We create such tasks mainly for corporate clients seeking data services. Later, we pay dividends to data owners in exchange for access to their assets. There are many benefits to this arrangement. First, it’s in the long-term interest of data firms to show that they can use data responsibly. Second, it gives data owners control over who keeps and uses their data. Finally, it transforms an unsolicited cold call from a random realtor into a chance to put real money into your bank account.
Most internet-based businesses both in China and abroad involve people making money offline and spending it online. I believe that in the next stage of the data economy, online income from digital labor will replace wages earned offline, allowing us to make a living off the data we share and paving the way for a new genre of tech startups dealing solely in money earned through digital labor.
Editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A man uses his mobile phone outside the Information and Communications Pavilion built for the Shanghai 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, April 19, 2010. Qilai Shen/Bloomberg/VCG)