Data Ownership is Bipartisan (Audio Article)
A 21st Century Miracle
Even in 2022, data ownership has managed to become an issue that is truly bipartisan in nature.
In the era of extreme polarization, echo chambers, Twitter arguments with robots, and mass-scale protests, people with completely different political viewpoints are actually agreeing on something other than Top Gun: Maverick is pretty good and Morbius is pretty not that good?
Why, yes. Data ownership is bipartisan. Because it makes too much damn sense not to be.
Part of me wishes that I could avoid all “news” at all costs. However, the nature of my profession and the evolutionary quirk that calls me to action when shit is hitting the fan have coupled together to create a world where I do actually keep up with the news (to an extent).
I’ve got two Twitter accounts. One follows predominantly left-leaning accounts. One follows predominantly right-leaning accounts. This is beneficial in a few ways, the first of which being observational: each “side” thinks the other is devoid of any actual intelligence and have been spawned from the depths of hell, a useful tidbit to keep in mind when entering any form of argument. The second being, when both “sides” actually agree on something (beyond pop culture—fighter jet goes whoooooosh!), I get to see a glimmer of sunlight in a political shitstorm.
Data ownership is one of the seemingly few things both sides agree on. From constituents to legislators, data ownership is being discussed in a way that makes it seem like an inevitability. The framing of the utility of data ownership is quite different, but at this point, does that really matter? The complicated answer is yes, of course it matters, but for the moment, let us celebrate that in America, people are actually agreeing on something.
Let’s hone in on two specific examples:
First, from the “left.”
If you don’t pay attention to American politics or are Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates, last week Roe v. Wade was overturned after 50 years. Lots of people are psyched. Lots of people are pissed. On a spectrum of super pissed to super psyched, we may be fully operational in “inverted bell curve” territory.
On the very pissed end of the spectrum, opinions tethered with data privacy, and therefore data ownership, have been popping up frequently ever since the decision was originally leaked in early May.
The culprit: period tracking apps.
Did I ever think I would be excited to see multiple news stories on period tracking apps? Truthfully, even as someone in the realm of data privacy and ownership, the first time I actually thought about them (Lord forgive me) was back in January when Shannon wrote about them for us. I guess as a single dude, this fell into the category of “out of sight, out of mind,” but when the decision for Roe v. Wade leaked in May, period tracking apps became objects of my direct attention.
It's been pretty hard not to be attentive to the developments. Do me a quick favor: head over to the search engine of your choice and type in “period tracking apps” into the “News” function. See what I’m talking about? Hard to ignore.
The increasingly apparent worry from those opposed to the revocation of Roe v. Wade is that user data from period tracking apps could indicate when a person is pregnant, and combined with location data could incriminate individuals who are seeking abortions in states where the procedure is set to become illegal.
Politicians, led by Representative Sara Jacobs (D-California), introduced the “My Body, My Data Act of 2022” to Congress on June 16th. The bill proposes minimizing the collecting, retaining, using and disclosing of personal reproductive or sexual health information. It also makes it easier for individuals to access and delete said data. This is a bill with specificity (reproductive and sexual health data) but is not the first or last venture into protecting the individual’s health data. Regardless of politics, the simple fact remains: this issue has thrust data privacy and ownership into the spotlight; millions more people are becoming aware of the importance of individual data ownership rights.
Which brings us to our next development, this time from the “right”…
Now, this is not something making headlines, but similar sentiments still remain. Tim Reichert (R-Colorado), who is running to represent Colorado’s 7th congressional district in the US House, posted an article to The American Conservative the day after the “My Body, My Data Act” was introduced to Congress.
When uncovering articles advocating for data ownership rights, I don’t expect to find them with titles such as “Welcome Back to the 1890s,” but I didn’t expect myself to be well versed in period tracking apps either.
Reichert’s parallel between the 1890s and data ownership is found in reference to the Homestead Act of the late 19th century. To Reichert, data is framed as a property rights issue, and he proposes that “all newly generated data pertaining to American citizens is owned individually by them.” By owning newly generated data, he believes users can opt out of the “prevailing corporate surveillance/advertising system.” He estimates that a user’s data is worth more than $1000, and he’s not wrong.
There are some other proposals in the “Digital Homestead Act,” including “allocate[ing] federal funds toward developing the technologies needed [for data ownership], as well as some incentives for passing such legislation in the name of quelling the power of Big Tech, but given these are just ideas and not yet a proposed bill, I’m not going to stew too much on the details.
It is certainly worth mentioning, however, that the incentive to opt out of surveillance shares some pretty common threads with the bill spearheaded by the California Democrat Sara Jacobs. A California Democrat and a Colorado Republican agreeing on something? At least at a high level? Not bad, if you ask me.
Now, I don’t know how I feel about the proposed bill from Jacobs or the ideas for legislation from Reichert quite yet. I’ll allow myself to dig in a bit deeper before making those decisions. Bills are important because they set precedent for future bills, so something that looks good on paper could end up being debilitating in the long run. Plus, I do have a natural tendency to mistrust politicians of any party (one instance of “guilty until proven innocent” that I abide by), but I digress.
If I’m banking on impactful legislation to create tangible data ownership rights for Americans, I’m not going to count my eggs before they hatch.
But for once in these crazy, cutthroat times, both parties seem to agree on something, and it’s very easy to see why.
Again: Data ownership makes too much damn sense.
And thus, the movement grows.