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It’s Time to Tax Big Tech’s Data

Big Tech is the big winner from the coronavirus crisis, raking in record profits. But their revenue comes from data we create collectively – and we should tax it for the public good.

In his autobiography Familiar Stranger cultural theorist Stuart Hall writes that, “generation is more than chronology… relating as much to shared experience, a common vision or thinking with the same ‘problem space’ as it does to a mere date of birth.”

If we think of our ‘shared experience,’ it has been one of austerity politics, wage stagnation and a fall in living standards, the worrying rise of populist nationalism in mainstream politics and a succession of Tory governments.

Inequality has grown exponentially, meaning that 10% of the population now own 45% of the nation’s wealth whereas the majority of the population are worse off than they have been for decades. The housing crisis means many families live month to month in rented accommodation which they could lose at any moment and others are forced to work zero-hour contracts for some of the wealthiest corporations.

This has had many detrimental effects from increasing homelessness to a rise in unsustainable debt. It is a dire situation and is even more frightening when we consider the economic fallout which will follow this pandemic crisis. In current circumstances, very few of us are lucky enough to not live precariously.

The government is currently lending billions to put the economy on life support. Their message has been clear: once this is over it will need to be paid back. Our shared experience suggests that we know what will happen next. As figures show from the last decade of austerity, the most vulnerable were hit the hardest and many were dragged into economic hardship while it had little to no effect on the income of the wealthiest.

But austerity has not been our only ‘shared experience’ as a generation, we are also the first to experience the brave new world in which the internet has infiltrated every aspect of our daily life and formed a new digital economy estimated at three trillion dollars.

Whereas the coronavirus is a nightmare for most of us, with internet usage growing by up to 50% during lockdown it is a dream for internet companies and data firms.

Netflix, currently valued higher than US oil giant ExxonMobil, has had record subscription numbers as well as having to lower the quality of its streams due to the amount of people watching. The data that will be gained from this growth in users and watching means more profit.

It is not just Netflix gaining from the lockdown but also Amazon whose shares have increased by a third with customers reportedly spending almost $11,000 a second on its products. Facebook have outlined in a blogpost how their usage figures have massively increased during the lockdown. Again both of these giants collect valuable personal data from which they increase profits.

It is not just media, social platforms and online shopping that profit from our data as the ‘Cambridge Analytica’ scandal clearly shows us. Matthew Cole noted last month that “the three largest data brokers – Experian, Equifax and Transunion – each bring in over a billion dollars annually.

This data has value because it can allow companies to anticipate shifts in markets, manipulate worker and consumer behaviour and be used for mass surveillance by technology firms and states alike.”

The data brokerage industry is thought to be worth $200 billion a year and the European Commission suggests that the market in Europe could be worth €106.8 billion. These firms exist for the sole purpose to collect and sell data on the market which then informs the huge artificial intelligence market for machine learning which is vital for future growth in many industries.

Individual data in itself isn’t important, rather it is our collective data which drives larger profits. Collective data allows for more market research, greater trend and behavioural analysis on a large scale. 

But there is something unjust about this whole market in data. We have collectively created this data through our actions and labour, but it is owned by private companies that make huge profits off it. Our collective wealth is in private hands.

As Chris Hughes has written in the Guardian “we have all pitched in to create a new commonwealth of information about ourselves that is bigger than any single participant, and we should all benefit from it.” What our labour has created should be ours to broker.

A NY Times article suggests the trading in data of each person could be worth up $1,000 per year. In the UK there are estimated to be over 63 million people using the internet which means that even a small tax on our data could be worth billions each year.

An estimated figure based on this suggests a modest 2% tax would raise over a billion pounds per year. However, more must be done by governments to demand transparency by companies profiting from their use of our data to make it more quantifiable.

In the meantime, data brokerage firms would be a key area where we can get a good idea of revenue made from what they collect and sell. 

We should claim some of the profits through taxation. Data forms part of our ‘commons’ – that which we have created or own in common. Taxing data would be the first step in a longer process of reclaiming our ownership of the commons which would include a tax on private profiteering from our land, forests, public parks and natural resources.

Barcelona is already leading the way and has made its own different steps in terms on collective data ownership through the DECODE project. Taxation is fundamental to raising money for ideas like a universal basic income which would be a viable way to end endemic economic insecurity and a generation’s status as the ‘precariat.’

As Stuart Hall suggests, as well as a ‘shared experience’, generation can also be a ‘common vision’ and thinking in the same ‘problem space’. We should form our common vision around this claim on the commons as an alternative to what our shared experience suggests the Tory government will offer. Their opposition to any additional taxation on wealth or any rise in social spending is well known and experienced, therefore it will take a united opposition to collectively demand this.

Coming out of the crisis, we can use our shared experience to demand that the state doesn’t put the burden of the crisis on the most disadvantaged again and form a common vision around a system that reclaims the commons and makes sure that the profits from what is ours is put back into our hands.

As internet companies rake in enormous profits during the lockdown, we should seize the opportunity to make a claim on what we have created and hold it as a public wealth to be invested in services that benefit us collectively.