Congressman: Google, Facebook, Amazon Should Pay Consumers for their Harvested Data

Facebook employee Catherine Doyle engages with a small business owner at a "boot camp" event July 10, 2014 in Chicago. (Jeff Haynes/Invision for Facebook/AP Images)

WASHINGTON – The co-chairman of the Democratic National Committee and member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus endorsed the idea of requiring technology companies such as Facebook and Google to compensate individuals for the use of their personal data.

“Of course I like that idea but let me tell you what I like better – a legal principle that when you act out in the world… that you have a property interest” in the recording of that information, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) told PJM after a recent congressional briefing about the “impact of the largest Internet companies on competition, innovation and democracy.”

“So if you click here or click there that’s partly you. So whether you want to get paid or not get paid or sell it or not sell it, it’s up to you. The problem is that people don’t have any control over that,” Ellison said.

“People use their clicks, their whereabouts, their website visits, their whatever and like say it’s mine and they don’t, whoever told them it was theirs? You know, they just decide it is,” he added. “In my opinion, there needs to be an adjustment because what has happened is that these big firms that sort of just scoop up all this data are simply one step ahead of what the law should be. And so we need to adjust it. Often technology runs ahead of law and social norms so we need to just fix it.”

While Google, Amazon and Apple currently sell competing technology products and services, Ellison said consumers needs more choices.

“There’s nowhere near enough variety, and by the way, because three is not enough – but I mean, a lot of times there are products out there that are owned by the same entity, but they look like they’re variety – the illusion of choice. How many kinds of bottle water can you buy owned by Nestle, right? So there is this illusion of choice,” the congressman said.

“The other thing is there are limitations on choice even within that one company, because like if I’m trying to sell on Amazon or get my product on Amazon, they have a lot of power over me to tell me what I’m going to sell it for, what the weight packaging is going to be, what the packaging is going to look like, what screen I’m going to get, am I going to be on the first page, am I going to be on the third page, am I going to be on the 32nd page?” he added. “All of this is going to affect my ability to be viable, so there are real limitations on choice.”

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said companies are collecting and managing consumers’ data without fairly compensating them so some sort of “distribution model” should be examined.

“If you accept the notion, which I think is a fair assertion, that data is the currency, kind of the new currency, and you think, well, the data belongs to the person who provides it, the idea of figuring out how do you ensure the individual that’s providing that data is being treated fairly?” he said. “And so I am sure there are some ideas out there about returning some of that value back to the consumer. You have to understand what some of the implications are in terms of the platform and the marketplace.”

Cicilline shared his reaction to reports of the working conditions in some of Amazon’s warehouses in England, where employees are reportedly overworked and falling asleep on their feet.

“The challenge with concentration of platform dominance by such few firms and the kind of power that translates into is significant — what it does to wages, what it does to workers — so I think it’s not peculiar to Amazon. I think there are several large platforms, I think, you know, the top five or six of them control 80 percent of the market or something,” he said. “It’s a huge concentration of economic power.”

Ellison, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, recommended that “antitrust” enforcement should be “much broader” than a company’s “product differentiation.”

“We should be talking about price, product differentiation, but also impact on the local community, impact on the environment, impact on democracy, impact on a whole range of factors that impact people’s lives and that’s the direction we should go in,” he said.

If Democrats take the majority in the House next year, Ellison said they should “enforce” the Clayton and the Sherman Antitrust Acts, which prohibit certain actions deemed harmful to consumers, before passing new legislation. Ellison also would like to see Congress retroactively review mergers that were already approved.

“There are a number of bills that we could come up with. I have one that says that we’re going to take a retrospective look of mergers that were already approved. I mean, did they deliver on their promises? So we’re going to do that, but the real question is we have some antitrust laws,” he said.

“We probably need to update them and get more of them, but we’re not enforcing the ones that we already have,” Ellison added. “We need to dispense of this whole Robert Bork idea that it’s all about short-term price and go back to that old idea that there are a range of important community factors that need to be considered when a merger is approved or not.”