Who Owns Your Digital Twin? Not You—and Here's Why That's a Massive Problem | Opinion

"I should probably have told you sooner. I'm a twin. He lives in New York," my then-boyfriend of one month revealed to me, as our airplane prepared to touch down at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

"I, too, have a New York twin. Give me a strong drink and a good New York party, and you'll meet a richer, carefree version of me," I teased.

"I have an identical twin brother here. He's fun. You'll like him," he replied casually.

We were only a month into our relationship, but I still wondered why he didn't tell me sooner. To every twin I had known previously, sharing a genetic make-up—and nearly every major life milestone—was a huge deal. It was central to their identity and typically a powerfully formative experience. Some felt a special, inarticulable bond; others were confused by the lack of connection they felt.

Fast-forward 15 years later, and it seems like we all have twins. Anyone who comes into contact with the internet has several digital versions of themselves—sometimes crafted, cultivated and curated across various social and service platforms, but sometimes created accidentally, in the footprint of our internet usage. Data patterns—pictures, biographical facts and online behavior—are transmitted increasingly seamlessly and efficiently between platforms, with or without our knowledge, and a cohesive narrative emerges.

These data patterns allow our digital twins to lead quiet, parallel lives in the shadow of our physical selves. Often, we are completely unaware for years and, in some cases, even decades. Your digital twins are complete profiles. They aren't merely a collection of a few random photos from your summer vacation or records from your latest online shopping spree; they are a comprehensive profile, including personal data that companies record outside of their own websites, in addition to data obtained from third parties.

Collectively, our digital twins have driven the growth of the internet and the online platforms that provide services to us. These services—from Facebook and Instagram to LinkedIn and Amazon—are not actually free: By consenting to let the company own, use and sell your personal, you are selling them your digital twin. You trade them your most personal information for usage of their platform.

With ownership of your shadow self, companies then lend, sell and otherwise monetize their version of you through advertising on a secondary market—all behind your back. And these companies know a lot about us. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg confirmed many of our worst fears about Facebook's creepy and ethically shady practices in his 2018 testimony before the U.S. Congress.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on April 10, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Zach Gibson/Getty

If it sounds like George Orwell's Big Brother, it's because it is—but run by corporations, not the government. Thanks to an outdated and generally lax data protection regime, the ruling assumption is that companies own our digital twins. According to the laws, as they stand now, as soon as we click "I agree" after scrolling through the terms of service, our twins belong to corporations, with little legal obligations.

As consumers, we already have limited rights. But we need to become empowered and stop blindly accepting the terms of service and privacy policies that few read—and that companies write knowing few will read. We're all guilty of this. I'm a lawyer who used to write these policies, and even I don't usually read them!

But our legislators have a responsibility as well. Right now, companies face almost no legal limits on what they can do with our personal data for their own profit. Our digital twins are theirs to do whatever they want with—to sell to a private corporation, a political campaign, even a foreign country. Lawmakers must return control of our digital selves to us, and broadly define our digital selves.

There are at least five main reasons that we should have ownership over our digital selves.

First, our digital twins are an extension of ourselves. They reflect who we are as individuals, how we spend our time, who and what we like and dislike, our preferences and quirks. That's because we use the internet for just about everything, and our lives are increasingly digital and virtual. The idea that when we use the internet, we consent to the use of the data we input is outdated. It made sense when we went online for just a few things: shopping, booking flights, even emailing. But today, we use the internet for just about everything. It's an extension of our physical space, our physical reality, and it mediates much if not most of our very existence. In fact, in 2019, you can hardly function as an active member in our society without internet. Our digital twin, then, captures not just our marketing demographics or preferences, but all of what makes us human.

It only makes sense that we have agency over our digital selves, just like we have agency over our physical selves or even our intellectual property. Why should a company's collection, aggregation or manipulation of data about us change the ownership or create new rights? When you take a picture of Picasso's artwork, it's still his art. That you just snapped a quick picture doesn't mean you now own the image. Similarly, when you tell a friend a deeply personal secret, it's still your secret. You would never expect that they would spread it—sell it, even—and claim that it became their information to share when you divulged it. Why should the way we think about our digital information be any different?

Second, our control over our digital twin is an inalienable right, up there with "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." We can work every day, albeit for very long hours, but we can never be expected to surrender our liberty. No matter what the employer asks, we have the right to walk away at any time, subject to the terms of contract terms, but never with the prospect of losing our liberty hanging over our heads. Most of us do exchange our time for a paycheck, and in doing so, voluntarily give up certain luxuries—waking up at noon or taking a two-hour mid-day nap. But we are not legally forced to surrender our very liberty or right to selfhood to our employers. Our employers can't jail us or enslave us. They can never own us.

Similarly, each of us should have control over our digital twins, even after we permit companies to use them in a defined way—just as we permit our employers to use our physical selves in a defined way. Selling our digital twins should be no more enforceable than selling our selves. It should be negotiated, equitable and entered into freely.

Third, clear, inalienable, individual ownership of our digital twins will encourage the development of more sophisticated technologies to keep track of and manage our digital twins. Companies will be forced to compete in the creation and use of these technologies, and consumers will enjoy more choices of social platforms with different technologies and policies, and ultimately better services and more options.

Today, there is essentially no competition or incentive for companies to innovate in social platforms. If you read a company's term of services and privacy policy, disagree and refuse to consent, what are your alternatives? You will be left behind the digital revolution. If you're a small company, and you don't want to hand over your digital self to Facebook, you technically have the right to refuse their terms and not use their service. But without access to the most widely used sales and advertising platform, your business will not be able to survive, much less compete. Have you noticed that a meaningful alternative to LinkedIn, Facebook or Amazon does not exist? Where would you go if LinkedIn one day decided to cancel your profile in the middle of a grueling job search? Would it not be devastating? Where else would employers find you?

Fourth, if we do establish clear, inalienable, individual ownership of our digital twins, we as a society will encourage the development of meaningful alternatives to existing services. The main reason for such high barriers to entry for possible alternatives to these social platforms and services is that each existing companies already control so much territory and information. Each company is a monopoly in its own area, owning every part of our digital twin.

Any person who wants to enter the market by creating an alternative will have to start from scratch—and immediately compete with an established giant. And our profiles are not portable. Users cannot move their connections, activities or comments to a competition platform or service in any meaningful or efficient way even if one existed.

And fifth, our digital twins are the fruits of our own labor. We invest significant time and energy into our profiles. We make decisions in which pictures to upload, with whom to share information, and what to comment on the posts of others. Creating a digital twin is actually a creative act. And if our energy went into creating it, it belongs to us.

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The Snapchat app is displayed on the home screen of an iPhone on May 2, 2018, in San Anselmo, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty

The fact that we use discretion doesn't make it any less our own property, or any less an extension of us; in fact, choosing how to express ourselves is perhaps the most intimate extension of our own identity. Just because an artist uses commercial paint (as opposed to making his own), that doesn't mean that the paints company owns his work. He made decisions on how to use that paint, and those decisions are an extremely personal reflection of his own vision and identity. Why shouldn't the ownership of digital selves stay with the creator, just like the ownership of painting stays with a painter?

Recently, California enacted its own data protections building on, and in some ways, extending the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) gives state residents the right to know how their data is collected and how it is shared. It also allows residents to deny companies the right to sell their data. Specifically, according to CCPA, consumers have the right to know the categories of personal information collected, the sources of those categories, business or commercial purposes for collecting or selling personal information, and the third parties with whom the data will be shared.

Some see CCPA as a potential model for other states and countries, setting a new paradigm for the legal regulation of data usage by private companies. But just like GDPR and many other privacy regimes before it, CCPA focuses on informing the consumers and obtaining their consent. In essence, it creates the right to know that our digital twins exist, to see what they look like, and how they are used.

It falls short, however, of ensuring that each of us owns our various digital twins. Most importantly, it fails to clarify that no contracts or terms of conditions, even if signed or clicked through, can change this reality. Just like no employer can take away your liberty. And just like no combination of paints—store-bought or homemade—can make a painter's artwork any less their own.

It's past time for us to take back the right to our digital selves. We don't need to keep increasing the complexity of disclosure requirements in order to satisfy already confused consumers. We need a paradigm shift in how we think about our digital information. We need to make clear that all of our data together constitute a shadow of our selves, and we each have an alienable right to our own shadow.

Companies cannot have rights to our digital twin any more than they can to our liberties. Companies must ask permission to collect every piece of data that they want, just like your employer has to bargain for each hour of your time and energy. And the failure to provide that permission cannot be a basis to deny services.

Most important, they must expeditiously implement various mechanisms to allow our digital twins to be readily and easily transferrable across platforms and services. Doing so would make the rights to our digital twins more meaningful and enable more competition, choices and innovation in the space.

Olga V. Mack is a strategist, attorney, nationally recognized author, public speaker and women's advocate. She is vice president of strategy at Quantstamp, the first decentralized security auditing blockchain platform.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.