How much are you worth to Facebook?

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The poorest people in the world achieve hardly any physical privacy. They can’t afford it. A billion people enjoy Facebook because it’s free. What parallels can we draw?

Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights entrenches our rights to privacy. Sounds nice, but does it make any sense? Not more sense than the other Declaration articles in our societal system where money rules. Life consists of transactions, many of which are illusionary.

In the virtual world, it’s only worse. After money, attention is the most important currency, but the social network users can’t trade with it, only Facebook and the people looking to make money from it.

Using personal data as internet currency means that privacy gets a concrete, and above all, deliberate value in commercial traffic. Users could assign that value themselves. In this kind of model, companies receive permission to collect/use personal data in exchange for certain services for a limited time. The individual would then manage his or her own privacy purse.

The argument that hundreds of millions of people give away their personal data on social networks with absolutely no interest in the commercial value of that information does not make sense. It is simply the case that they don’t have the slightest idea.

In fact, some marketing companies recently tried to develop a Facebook value. They urged for a very simple #facebookowesme, a scan everyone should try to get an idea, and share this with Facebook friends.

I know it’s an incredibly simple concept. But it’s just the first step in making people conscious of the commercial value of personal data. Further steps in this direction are taken by, for example, Sarah Spiekermann, with her very interesting research on experienced Facebook value published in 2012, Privacy Property and Personal Information Markets. According to Spiekerman: “Even if privacy is an inalienable human right it would be good if people were enabled to manage their personal data as private property.”

It’s not only about “monetizing”. The earth is, happily, not that flat. But materializing privacy might help us to overcome the huge issues we have when it comes to the privacy of internet users, and finally social networks and marketing will profit from more knowledge and more trust in the use of personal data.


Peter Olsthoorn was one of the first European journalists to cover the internet, having done so since 1994. He recently finished writing The Power of Facebook ebooks which come in from 100, 300 and 500 page editions for different target groups.

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