Please consider the idea that Facebook, Google, and Amazon owe you a lot of money.

The companies listed in this thread’s title are 3 of the 5 most valuable companies on the Fortune 500 list.* The other two in the top 5 are Apple and Microsoft, also tech companies collecting loads of information about you.

Please consider the following points:

  1. These companies’ primary source of revenue is advertisements (with the important exception of Apple and Microsoft, who make the devices which show the advertisements.)
  2. Those advertisements are placed in front of people using A.I. to determine what ad will be most effective for each user.**
  3. A.I. doesn’t work without TONS of data. To make a program “smart”, you have to train it by showing it lots and lots of examples.
  4. The examples which train the A.I. advertising programs are collected from your online activity, location, emails, etc. The more user data that is collected, the better the A.I. gets.
  5. This allows companies to create massive amounts of value based on free, voluntary contributions from users. As a result, the biggest tech companies’ labor expenses-to-income ratios are only 5 to 15 percent. Walmart, by comparison, is at 80 percent.

The question is, shouldn’t we be compensated for helping to create all these billions of dollars of value for these companies? Isn’t the data created by you a form of intellectual property, as Jaron Lanier argues here?

Whether you think that compensation comes in the form of a tax, as is currently being attempted in Europe, as a voluntary system set up by an alliance of social media companies, or as a system regulated by the government, may depend on your personal political beliefs. But if there is one unifying principle to the movement behind humane technology, I think it is that we must demand that social media companies pay a fair price for all of the data which is the #1 factor behind their success. It would not solve all of the problems with data capitalism, but I think it is a major foundational piece that needs to happen before we can ever imagine a humane society based on big data.

As far as a grassroots effort to raise awareness of this and put it in the eyes of politicians, I think there are a few things which could be done:

  • Develop a detailed petition on or similar platform
  • Write a template letter for people to send to their local politicians
  • Develop an “invoice” for people to send en masse to executives of large social media companies. This one is a bit silly but would act as a symbolic gesture of taking ownership of one’s own data.

There are always detailed and interesting responses on here, so I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this issue. Thanks!

*Fortune only ranks U.S. companies, for what it’s worth.

**In theory, the A.I. makes ads more efficient, which makes the platform far more attractive for advertisers who want to microsegment their audiences than “bludgeon” style ad platforms like TV and radio

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Social media companies are not the only ones feeding cost-free big data to A.I. software in order to create value. Insurance companies are catching on, too.

Other industries profiting from YOUR personal data include banking, logistics, retail, utilities companies, to name a few.. Because users volunteer their information, they are getting all of this data for free, the same way Silicon Valley companies do.

What happens if banks, logistics, retail companies, utility companies, etc. are able to use big data and A.I. to reach that 5-15% labor cost-to-revenue ratio that Facebook and Friends now enjoy? We are talking about trillions of dollars of value created that, under the current system, will not lead to any positive benefits to everyday people (except for an increasing variety of free platforms to share cute dog pictures with family and friends).

@afuchs, thank you for your insights. Yes indeed I think we’ve all known about this for years but it hasn’t been fully in our consciousness. Although I’m still on Facebook, I haven’t been active since February 2018. Facebook are currently running a big ad campaign in the UK, telling us things are changing and they want us to trust them. The ad makes me sick. The only reason I have stayed on Facebook, because my wife says she won’t be able to tag me. She is still addicted. I have come off Instagram and WhatsApp and it’s all hugely liberating and freeing to know I don’t need to go there any longer. I have also cleared out all the ad preferences inside Facebook, it’s easy to do but of course nobody bothers. Amazon, I rarely shop there and Google, well not much we can do about them and for now it’s not bothering me as much as Facebook did.

The biggest crime I believe is ‘audiences’, this is where anyone can upload an email list or even a phone list to Facebook and serve up ads to them. LinkedIn now has the same option too. I know I heard some rumour that they are needing to make sure under GDPR rules that the data has been collected correctly, but as we know nobody is going to say it has been collected illegally.

So a combination of AI, demographic, personal and together with ‘audiences’ data, these companies have a rich cocktail of data to target us at a very individual level.

Well that is providing you’re actually active there (Facebook). If you’re not active of course you won’t see anything and that’s where I am today, no longer active.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention and it’s very interesting to learn about the labour ratio.


Great post ! Obviously despite starting to getting known as profitable data collection companies, people still value google and others’s service too much to consider the value of what they are giving them ongoing.
My paradox is that I believe we should be able to share what we want with anyone online however I recently did a review of my online activity with a specific online tool and I was really annoyed at finding out that in page 2 only there was there , exposed a real personal message, I had shared on someone’s blog which I thought was much more private than on social media platforms…I love certain facebook groups but I feel i can not really share what i would like to as it can just be used to build a pretty thorough psychological profile of myself! I don’t really mind people to know who I am but I dislike not choosing who these people are!