Will consumers sell their personal data, and for how much?

By Jack Jamieson


I was recently asked the following: is there any research on whether consumers are willing to hand over an entire social media dataset – like for example all of their Facebook data – to some third party that pays them for it? And if so, to whom would they be willing to hand it, and in exchange for getting paid how much?

Great question! I spend my days researching technology, society, and culture, and so this type of question interests me. Recently I’ve been working on a few projects about technology adoption, and people’s reasons for using or not using a technology can be complex and sometimes surprising.

Since this piqued my interest, I did a quick search and found a couple useful results (listed below).

Overall, It seems like a difficult question because the details are likely to matter a lot.

For example, in Schubert et al. 2021 (see below), 66% of students were willing to sell their Facebook data to a research team for about $10 USD. This may not be generalizable, though, because (a) the data was only used for research purposes and (b) study participants had already demonstrated trust toward the researchers by participating in the study in the first place.

The other studies I found used surveys. This means they could ask about more generalizable circumstances, but relied on self-report data. Even if respondents indicate they would be willing to sell their data for $X, it’s possible actual behaviour could be different in practice. Surveys are a powerful tool, and I use them in my own research, but it is always a challenge to predict actual behaviour from what people say they will do.

None of what I found referred to NFTs, and very little involved actually implementing a system for selling. So, I’m not aware of successful implementations of selling this kind of data with NFTs. (That said, there’s plenty I don’t know about the landscape of NFT projects.)

I’m generally a little skeptical. Within our social media data may be records of friendships, romances, moments of triumph, and moments of despair. Selling that data accepts the proposition that this kind of information can and should be viewed as a commodity. I would rather push away from that proposition than to further normalize it.

There are circumstances where this could be very useful, however. In pursuing those cases, I’d argue it’s important to maintain focus on use-value, rather than than on maximizing exchange-value (to borrow some Marxist lingo).

At any rate, here are some articles I found, with key findings highlighted:

  • Renate Schubert, Ioana Marinica, Luca Mosetti (2021): Willingness to sell social media data. A laboratory experiment. Working paper (not peer-reviewed) (PDF).

    • “A sample of 174 student participants downloaded their Facebook data. The participants were invited to sell their data package to the research team in exchange for 10 Swiss Francs (approx. 10 US Dollars) in the form of a take-it-or-leave-it offer. 66% of the study participants sold their social media data.”

    • In my opinion, this is likely a low estimate for many situations because (a) the research team probably already has a lot of trust from students, compared to a company, etc. and (b) participants were assured that “the data would be appropriately encrypted, used only for research purposes by the investigators, and the results would only be published in anonymized form.” Cases of selling one’s data for commercial use are likely to be viewed differently.

  • Benndorf, V., & Normann, H.-T. (2017): The Willingness to Sell Personal Data. The Scandinavian Journal of Economics. doi:10.1111/sjoe.12247 (link).

    • “A minority of about 10% to 20% are unwilling to sell personal data, a share which is roughly constant across the type of data we ask for and the elicitation method. A similar share request 2.50 Euros or less for their data. Those subjects who are willing to sell request, on average, 15 Euros for their contact details and 19 Euros for their Facebook details.”
  • A. G. Winegar & C. R. Sunstein (2019): How Much Is Data Privacy Worth? A Preliminary Investigation (link).

    • “Do consumers value data privacy? How much? In a survey of 2,416 Americans, we find that the median consumer is willing to pay just $5 per month to maintain data privacy (along specified dimensions), but would demand $80 to allow access to personal data. This is a ‘superendowment effect,’ much higher than the 1:2 ratio often found between willingness to pay and willingness to accept. In addition, people demand significantly more money to allow access to personal data when primed that such data includes health-related data than when primed that such data includes demographic data”.
  • Jeffrey Prince & Scott Wallsten (2020): How Much is Privacy Worth Around the World and Across Platforms? (PDF).

    • This has lots of detailed results. I haven’t read it closely yet but it looks like a good deep dive.

    • “The countries we analyze include the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, and Germany.”

    • “We find that people in Germany place the highest value on privacy compared to the U.S. and Latin American countries.”

    • “We also find that women value privacy more than men do across platforms, data types, and countries and older people value privacy more than younger people. We find no real differences across income in privacy preferences.”

  • Jay R. Corrigan, Saleem Alhabash, Matthew Rousu, Sean B. Cash (2018): How much is social media worth? Estimating the value of Facebook by paying users to stop using it (link).

    • This is not the same question, but still caught my eye: “We consistently find the average Facebook user would require more than $1000 to deactivate their account for one year.”