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Could Blockchain Really Enable ‘Data As a Universal Basic Income’?

Simon Chandler
Last updated: | 4 min read

A number of companies are building decentralized platforms that aim to pay people for sharing their data. Some experts question whether the payments people will receive for data will reach the level of a universal basic income.

Source: iStock/JLGutierrez

The richest 26 individuals in the world possess as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population, numbering some 3.8 billion people. This was one of the many eyebrow-raising findings of a January report from Oxfam, and at a time when automation is threatening to replace around 800 million jobs globally by the end of 2030, it’s likely that the problem of inequality is only going to get worse.

However, while it may have little to say about automation and job losses, blockchain is increasingly being touted as a way to deliver universal basic income (UBI). A number of companies are building decentralized platforms that aim to pay people for sharing their data, and while their ultimate goals vary, at least one believes that it can use blockchain to transform data into a form of UBI.

But while the platforms of these companies are certainly capable from a technological standpoint of paying people for personal data, it’s not clear that the market demand for such data is sufficient to push payment to UBI levels.

Sovereignty over data

Harmony serves as the underlying architecture for a user-owned internet – an internet not monopolized by the Googles and Facebooks of the world,” declares Nick White, a co-founder of Harmony, a scalable blockchain that aims to provide the basis for ‘data as universal basic income.’

In particular, White explains that, by enabling the development of decentralized applications and websites, Harmony will “flip the current paradigm of data monopolies on its head.” It will “allow users to maintain control of their own data and use it at their own digression,” since they remove the central authority that was previously necessary to operate social networks and websites.

“When users have sovereignty over their data, they will be in a position to sell it to others who would like to use the data to train their own models and/or target the user for goods or services,” White adds.

“The sharing of personal data and the payment for said data by an online retailer, news website or advertiser can all happen natively on the Harmony blockchain.”

And because data is apparently the “new oil,” people will be able to earn a significant supplementary income from selling their personal data, Harmony claims. And if this all takes place on decentralized networks rather than centralized servers belonging to Facebook or Google, then such a system would enable a massive redistribution of wealth away from monopolies to the general public.

Competing projects

Harmony’s mainnet is due to launch later in the year, but even if it isn’t live yet, other companies are also building platforms that aim to pay people for sharing their personal data.

Already available in an alpha version, Datawallet is a platform which lets users aggregate their personal data from Facebook, Twitter and other websites, which is then encrypted and anonymized onto the Ethereum blockchain. From there, users can choose to share any of this data with companies, whether they be app developers, data brokers, or marketing companies.

A similar startup is, which uses the IBM Blockchain and which has already launched an iOS and Android app that acts as a broker for the user’s data. In its white paper, it declared that being able to claim “your data as your property will bring a new form of passive income to life that does not require up-front effort or capital.”

Added to this, there a number of organizations building platforms that aim to provide self-sovereign identity, also known as the ability to own your ID credentials and personal data. For example, the Sovrin Foundation is one of them, and its platform will reward users (in Sovrin Tokens) for sharing their ID credentials with companies.

Enough demand?

However, some experts working within the field question whether the payments people will receive for data will reach the level of a universal basic income.

In fact, one of them is Phil Windley, the chair of the Sovrin Foundation.

“The problem is the personal data as property idea,” he tells “Identity data isn’t property in the way we understand property and selling it gets into some very complicated issues. But more importantly, it’s unlikely to amount to much – a full dossier on someone from a hacked account costs a couple bucks per person – including credit card numbers.”

Windley acknowledges that improved cybersecurity might increase demand for personal data, but he nonetheless states that he has “a tough time seeing [the price of data] getting to UBI levels.”

Even though Harmony’s Nick White agrees with this analysis to some extent, he still believes that the future growth of personal data could result in significant income streams.

“Facebook’s average revenue per user in the US is roughly USD 27 per quarter,” he says. “If we aggregate all the revenues per user across the most popular internet platforms today and we extrapolate into the future as the importance of machine learning and AI continue to grow alongside online advertising and ecommerce, it would be reasonable to expect this number to be significantly larger in the future.”

White admits that this wouldn’t be a salary that someone could live on. However, he suggests that if future platforms add more valuable financial and medical data – which can be shared securely via zero-knowledge proofs – then the income from personal data may one day “get closer to a basic income.”