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Is There a “Personal Data Economy” If You Control Your Own Data?

Doc Searls

Issue #213, January 2012

What happens to the market for personal data when persons actually control their own?

One year ago this month, the World Economic Forum put out a report titled “Personal Data: The Emergence of a New Asset Class”. Investopedia defines asset class as “a group of securities that exhibit similar characteristics, behave similarly in the marketplace, and are subject to the same laws and regulations. The three main asset classes are equities (stocks), fixed-income (bonds) and cash equivalents (money market instruments)”, and it adds, “It should be noted that in addition to the three main asset classes, some investment professionals would add real estate and commodities, and possibly other types of investments, to the asset class mix.”

Is personal data any of those things? If anything, it's one of those “other types of investments”, but is it a security in any sense? Investopedia says “a security is essentially a contract that can be assigned a value and traded”. Examples include “a note, stock, preferred share, bond, debenture, option, future, swap, right, warrant, or virtually any other financial asset”.

Well, it's clearly a financial asset—just not for you. That's because the asset is data about you—not your data you own, personally.

According to the Winterberry Group, “Marketing Data & Related Services Spending” in the US will be $7.8 billion this year. Most of that is for direct mail, where spending has been declining over recent years. The growth market is spending on data guiding digital media: on-line and e-mail. That won't reach a $billion this year, but it will soon enough.

The big spending aims toward what has long been a holy grail of advertising: delivering messages that are perfectly personalized and perfectly timed. Right now, they call this “customer-centric messaging”, “content-optimized interactions”, “right-time decisioning” and stuff like that. The fantasy is that this will be welcomed by individuals. The reality is that it's creepy.

Advertising always has been guesswork—the more accurate, the better. But once advertising on digital media becomes perfectly personal and perfectly timed, is it still advertising? No, it's a robot with bad manners.

But the fantasy is alive and well, so the market for data about you is still there, and growing. What can you do about it?

There are several approaches. One is to create a market for personal data that you participate in. Statz (https://www.statz.com/Sell/Statz_Take_Control_and_Own_Your_Data.aspx), for example, calls itself The Data Marketplace, and it gives you this pitch:

Benefit From the Data Economy

You may not even know it, but you're in the data business. Data about your phone calls, prescriptions, home energy use, purchases, investments and more is being sold every day. Without your permission or profit.

Statz lets you gather all your behavior, product usage, and activity data—FREE—and participate in the consumer-data market, anonymously and securely. And make money.

Other companies—Personal.com, Connect.me, Mydex.org, Trustfabric.com, Azigo.com, Singly.com—also work in various ways to protect your personal data (or, in the case of Connect.me, your reputation), though none have Statz' business model. (Not exactly, anyway. They're all different.)

All in various ways either use or develop open-source code. For Linux Journal readers, Singly stands out for its open-source pedigree and growth vectors. It was cofounded by Jeremie Miller of Jabber and XMPP fame. Last year, they also brought in Matt Zimmerman as CTO. He was the founding CTO of Ubuntu. The code bases to check out and contribute to are the Locker Project (lockerproject.org) and TeleHash (telehash.org).

Of the former, they say, “A Locker gives people ownership over their personal data and clear control over how it's protected and shared. Providing flexible APIs for access to that data, Lockers are a powerful way for developers to build applications that leverage rich personal data.” It's “licensed under the three-clause BSD License” and “primarily developed using node.js, with a bit of Python to facilitate some integration points. We use npm to help manage internal system dependencies, and we try to follow TDD/BDD as enthusiastically as our time will allow.”

TeleHash “works by sending and receiving small bits of JSON via UDP using an efficient routing system based on Kademlia, a proven and popular Distributed Hash Table. Everything within TeleHash is routed based on a generic SHA hash of the related id or URL.”

Okay, back to the personal data marketplace. While there are well-meaning efforts on the government side, such as “do not track” legislation proposed in the US and the “Midata” initiative by the UK government (promising to return control of personal data to citizens by the government and encouraging businesses to do the same), nothing I've brought up so far visits the possibility that personal data—that you own and control—is not by nature either a fungible asset or something that you would want to sell to anybody.

In other words, if all of us actually had full control of data about us, there might not be a market for personal data at all. There would simply be all the other markets we know—for goods and services we buy and sell. We might disclose some data on a permitted-use basis, such as most of us do every day using credit cards. But that's not the same as selling data as an “asset”.

The only reason we're talking about personal data as an “asset” is that the advertising marketplace—in which we are the product being sold, rather than the buyer or the seller—treats it like that. Once we get real control, however, that market will be in real trouble. Advertising will still be fine. Robotic bad manners will not.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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