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Mark Warner: This will 'send a shiver down the spine' of Facebook, Twitter, and Google

Andy Serwer
Editor in Chief

When it comes to the social media behemoths, Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), thinks many of us just don’t get it.

“Most Americans believe these are free services. There’s nothing free about ’em. They are milking information out of us, data out of us in — in a world where data’s the new oil. These are the only enterprises that, every time we deal with ’em, we give them more oil. We give them more data on us,” Warner said at the All Markets Summit: America’s Financial Future in Washington, D.C.

What does Warner—who’s the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and thereby steeped in the issue—propose we do about this? He has a number of remedies, some of them spelled out in white paper he authored.

I was intrigued by an idea he had, which would put a dollar value on our data. “[What] if you knew how much your data was worth to Facebook, on a monthly basis?” the senator asked. “If it’s $18 a month, or my data’s worth $22 a month, I think that might actually create a market incentive for new enterprises to come in and, in a sense, disaggregate between the user and the platform.”

Warner thinks this is important for a number of reasons, including competition. “… these three companies [Facebook, Google, and Twitter] have so dominated the market, it’s really hard for new companies to come in,” he says. “And that would be data transparency. So shouldn’t we have a right to know how many actual pieces of information these companies have on us?”

In fact, Warner says there may be a new law coming down the pike that would spur competition along these lines. “In California there’s legislation that’s gonna be put up which would send a shiver down the spine of the platform companies,” he says. “They’re gonna call it ‘You Are The Product,’ [whereby] no matter how many times you click ‘I agree,’ you retain basic rights to (they’re arguing) 25% of all the value of that data coming back to you in payment.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Senator Mark Warner. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

Another idea of Warner’s: Allow consumers to be able to take their data with them, like they can now do in the telco world. “I’m an old telecom guy. That used to be really hard when you moved from one telco to another, until Congress mandated number portability,” says Warner. “So as you move from AT&T to Verizon to T-Mobile, you can take your number with you. Could we introduce that same concept of data portability, so that you could move all of your history on Facebook, including your cat videos, to a new platform, if that new platform might have different rules of engagement,” he asks.

Warner says social media companies were “frankly irresponsible” after the 2016 election. While the senator says these companies have improved since then, he also says letting them self-regulate just doesn’t cut it.

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @serwer

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