Data Feudalism

2020-09-07

Data is capital in the age of surveillance capitalism. Regulation should be passed and enforced to control how companies collect, store, and use data. Today, this is done surreptitiously, without people's knowledge or consent. But beyond that, perhaps data should also be taxed.

A hypothethical company that builds a voice recognition system will, as expected, collect and hoard people's voice permanently to develop their systems (though not all of them do). If the company is worth $100B, how much are the voices that power the system worth? Let's say it is 80% or $80B, and the remaining $20B due to clever engineering and implementation of research papers. That's quite a lot; if the company has collected the voice of 1 million people, then you could say that each person's voice is worth $80B / 1M = $80K. Except that people do not have a stake in this adventure, and their worth is $0. As it is today, the relationship between the company and the people is a feudal one: the lord provides a service while the peasants harvest the data.

This techno-feudalism needs to change. It is true that the data is not valuable without the company's efforts to turn it into a useful voice recognition system. But the system is also not valuable or even realizable without the data. Yet, the company reaps all the benefits, and when left unchecked, grows in wealth and power while the peasants grow in their misery.

A tax on data could lessen some of the above evils. At the end of the day, data is a form of capital and should be taxed as such. Thus, people would benefit directly from its collection, storage and use. Together with their rights to manage (correct, delete, etc) their data, that would give them back a stake in the adventure. And the taxation could also disincentivize corporations from hoarding as much as they can, instead steering them to collect and store only as much as is necessary. A tax on data, provided regulations exist to control its collection, storage and use, could perhaps revert back some of the pitfalls of techno-feudalism.