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We need to own our data as a human right—and be compensated for it

AT A LUNCH at the World Economic Forum five years ago, guests were asked to predict what people would care about around 2019. My mind raced through thoughts about identity and data. When the host, Marc Benioff, the founder and chairman of Salesforce, turned to me, I stated: “idatity”. Identity and data are increasingly intertwined. The term I coined that day evokes the need for people to be more aware of how they safeguard and share their information.

Personal data needs to be regarded as a human right, just as access to water is a human right. The ability for people to own and control their data should be considered a central human value. The data itself should be treated like property and people should be fairly compensated for it.

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As a musician, I benefit from the copyright system that attaches ownership rights to my lyrics and instrumental tracks. Why should the data that I generate be handled any differently? It makes no sense that the information is used as the raw material to produce billions of dollars of income for massive “data monarchs” yet is of no financial value to me.

But in the five years since that lunch in Davos, these data monarchs—companies like Facebook and Google that collect, store, mine and sell data—have expanded into giant businesses. While these companies that give away “free” services have grown rich, the data that belongs to their users has at times been compromised, and people’s digital habits sold, often without their full knowledge.

The consequences have included fake news and groups that have influenced the outcome of America’s presidential election and Britain’s “Brexit” referendum to leave the European Union. Phoney social-media campaigns have been launched in South Africa designed to create chaos. So much for a “free” account. Has this ugly outcome that has divided societies on three continents been ...

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