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Your data is personal property, so don't hand it over for free: Ex official

Grete Suarez

Billionaire Investor Peter Thiel raised eyebrows last week when, in an op-ed in The New York Times, he called for scrutiny over Google (GOOGL)’s decision to start an A.I. lab in China.

Thiel’s call comes as tech giants are already under intense pressure for how they use and profit from user data. In an interview, one former government official reinforced the idea of that information being worth big money.

Robert Shapiro, who a former undersecretary of commerce under President Bill Clinton told Yahoo Finance that the U.S. should be looking at tech and social media platforms for their mass data collection.

The data is worth billions, even as users hand it over to companies for free — something Shapiro believes needs to be rethought.

“Imagine how profitable General Motors (GM) could be if its steel, their rubber, their glass were free,” Robert Shapiro said on Yahoo Finance’s YFi PM.

“The way these companies work, think about Facebook (FB) and Google, their basic inputs are free. We don’t charge them for our personal information,” he added.

Shapiro’s firm Sonecon, was recently commissioned by Democrat-backed nonprofit, Future Majority, to put a value on personal data. The firm estimated that personal information is worth around $79 billion this year — but that’s not all.

According to Sonecon’s research, by 2022, that data would be worth almost $200 billion.

“We’re talking about the value of $120 per person,” Shapiro said.“If you have 3 people in your household on the internet, you’re talking about nearly $400 a year.”

Shapiro told Yahoo Finance these companies are the most profitable and largest companies in the economy, and tech revenue is highly dependent on user data. And those companies are very good at gathering data.

“Don’t forget, everything you do on your cell phone, everything on every app on your cellphone is being captured in order to create these enormously detailed profiles of everyone,” he said.

Federal Trade Commission FTC Chairman Joe Simons speaks during a news conference about Facebook settlement at FTC headquarters in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Federal Trade Commission FTC Chairman Joe Simons speaks during a news conference about Facebook settlement at FTC headquarters in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Thiel argument honed in on the fact that China is not shy about their desire to dominate and exploit technology — but Shapiro said U.S. tech giants are basically doing the same.

“What Google and Facebook and every other large platform are doing today is actually the same thing as the Chinese government,” he said.

“They are collecting thousands and thousands… of files of personal information on everyone who uses the internet,” Shapiro added. “The Chinese government does it more directly.”

There is a bi-partisan Senate bill attempting to force big tech companies to report the value of each user on an individual basis, as well as showing what data has been collected.

Personal property

The ‘Dashboard Act’, backed by senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) aims to bring more transparency in order to promote competition.

Yet some big tech companies are already releasing the value of its users, including Facebook who reported $6.42 average revenue per user (ARPU) worldwide for the first quarter of this year.

That figure goes up to $30.12 per user in the U.S. and Canada, with the bulk of the revenue comes from advertising.

For his part, Shapiro thinks the basic business model needs to be reevaluated.

Companies and users need to “recognize that a person’s personal information, is that person’s personal property,” Shapiro said.

“Congress should designate this personal information as private property, so you can negotiate with these companies about what it’s worth, or these companies can move to a different model,” he added.

Grete Suarez is producer at Yahoo Finance for YFi PM and The Ticker. Follow her on Twitter: @GreteSuarez

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