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We Need to Give More Credence to Personal Data as the Asset That It Is

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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We all know the internet is required for full participation in our society and economy. Every business, device or government agency seems to require or highly encourage consumers to engage with them online.

Consumers are in a tough spot. Whether someone has access to the internet is the modern-day version of the haves and have-nots. Consumers must also “Click to Accept” to rules and policies not typically in their best interests. And if they say “No” to these rules and policies, these internet users are banished to the have-nots.

Consumers need a public policy to establish and exercise their digital rights. We deserve a digital Bill of Rights making possible a fair, transparent and empowering internet.

Consumers need awareness, trust and control, none of which they have at this time. In fact, all internet consumers operate as a marginalized set of users who lack the rights and privileges in the digital world that would be demanded and protected in our physical world.

Awareness is the first step. Consumers deserve transparency and notification describing the collection and sharing of their personal data, and a return on its value.

In other words, when consumers give up personal data, what do they get in return? Organizations use a consumer’s personal data, and how they do so is basically unknowable — studies show that privacy policies now require a postgraduate degree to decipher, and only 1% of us even make the effort.

In 85% of the more than 600 policies studied by the Center for Identity at The University of Texas, organizations declare their right to change their policies, and your continued use of their products are considered your consent to those changes even if you had no idea of the changes. So, as a real matter, we have no awareness and no control.

Our current binary choice to simply accept the status quo or disengage is not a real or fair one.

We need laws that require organizations to fully disclose their use of and rate of return on a consumer’s personal data asset. Consumers also need control. Although awareness and trust may help consumers decide which websites to visit, which apps to download and which social media sources to follow, consumers still aren’t able to exercise control in the digital world.

Imagine a day when consumers could control their personal data asset like they control their money: If the product is you (and the product is definitely the consumer), shouldn’t consumers be able to control that which directly affects every aspect of their lives? Shouldn’t consumers have the ability to control the collection, use and misuse of their personal data assets?

Laws must establish the requirements for this utility — the internet — giving consumers awareness, trust and control as their most foundational rights. We need federal and state laws that construe personal data as the asset it is (analogous to currency), to define the value proposition for all parties involved in personal data transactions with the appropriate rights and redress. The first step will be laws that clearly address the issue of personal data ownership and halt the exploitation of people and their data.

These policies and protections are long overdue. For too long, consumers have not fully understood what they are sharing or how this information is used, i.e. the value proposition that underpins this “transaction.” In fact, plenty of diverse interests exist on the internet, and the personal data industry benefits from a lack of transparency and opaque ownership. The reach and intrusiveness of the personal data collector and aggregator have grown significantly, while consumer ownership — and control — remains undefined.

Consumers deserve better. We all deserve an internet that is fair, transparent and empowering.

Suzanne Barber is the director of the Center for Identity and the AT&T Foundation Endowed Professor in Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.

Susan Combs is a former comptroller for the State of Texas; former assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at the Department of the Interior; and a fellow in the Center for Identity at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in The Hill.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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