Why it is time for a digital divide tax

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Andrew Yang wants you to get paid for your data; this plan is also known as a data dividend. It’s an idea that just feels fair and long overdue — treat our personal data as property, so that when companies want to use it, they have to pay for it. Yang rightfully points out that Facebook and other companies like it have managed to swindle us all in a big way: We trade our data in exchange for their revenue.

It’s hard to argue against any idea that redistributes some of Facebook’s billions in revenue to those who have been left in the wake of Big Tech. But we shouldn’t just settle for any old policy idea. If we’re going to take on Big Tech, we need the policy most likely to empower Americans to reach their economic potential, achieve healthy social lives and maintain their mental and physical well-being.

Yang is wrong to think that a data dividend will result in a meaningful change in our online behavior. Even with the few bucks we’d receive from this dividend, we’d still be just as captivated by all of the things that make us such valuable assets to Facebook and the like. Our social media and internet-based addictions run deep, so all of the social media-induced issues that Yang wants to solve with a data dividend — the subversion of our democracy, an unfair economic model and a decline in our mental health — would persist.

Instead, we need to implement a digital divide tax. This tax would explicitly apply to revenues earned from the collection of data with the intent of producing targeted ads or selling it to third parties. Just as with a data dividend, this tax would alter the economic incentives of Facebook, Google, Amazon and the rest of the tech and information giants. But this tax would differ from the data dividend in an important way — rather than simply sending money back to people, we’d invest the proceeds in closing the digital divide.

There’s no question that Big Tech has poisoned our civic sphere. For every positive that comes from our tech Goliaths — for example, Facebook announcing a voter registration effort — there’s a reciprocal drawback that fosters further division in our democracy — Facebook seemingly refusing to take meaningful action on misinformation.

Placing more money in the hands of Facebook users won’t change this pattern. Instead, we need to take on the tech giants by becoming better consumers. We as a digital society must become more aware of our privacy rights, more prepared to spot and ignore misinformation and more knowledgeable of other, safer ways to connect and search for information.

A digital divide tax would send its proceeds into the largest digital literacy training initiative ever conceived. Working with the ever-growing number of digital inclusion organizations, our government could help these organizations scale and reach every American with meaningful training on everything from word processing to coding. This initiative could close the ever-growing gap between those who grew up with access to tech and the knowledge to use it and those who struggle to get online in an affordable and safe way.

Fortunately, there’s a whole coalition of such organizations that’s been doing this work for a long time — check out the hundreds of members within the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, or NDIA, if you want to see some examples. These organizations are well-versed in helping members of diverse communities establish the digital skills required to excel in school, on job applications and in everyday activities such as seeing your doctor or talking with your family.

Even with a data dividend, if Americans don’t know how to use the internet in safe, smart ways, then Facebook and its siblings will continue to wreak havoc. We’ll be just as susceptible to their tricks: notifications that seize our attention, misinformation designed to deceive us and socially engineered product designs that make us crave likes, retweets and upvotes.

Americans deserve to benefit from the data they generate, but they also deserve the education required to make them more savvy online actors. At the federal or state level, a digital divide tax could be applied to any company that makes more than 50% of its revenue from data monetization. The governing jurisdiction could also institute a revenue threshold so that startups and small businesses could avoid the extra financial burden.

Next, revenue from the tax would go directly to organizations that have verified their ability to train a diverse range of Americans on skills that are essential to navigating the web. These organizations would ideally be nonprofit and nonpartisan. If policymakers are looking for a good place to start, they should amplify the efforts of organizations that are a part of the NDIA.

A data dividend would successfully throw a rock at the tech Goliaths. But to truly topple them, we need consumers who can speak up for their rights, flag and ignore misinformation and identify online resources that aren’t designed to mess with their mental health. We need to become digitally literate, and a digital divide tax can get us there.

Kevin Frazier is a student at the UC Berkeley School of Law and the founder of Neighbors for Nonprofits.