Thursday, September 27, 2007

Your Electronic Soul

Back in the summer of 2001 I testified at a US Senate hearing on Internet and Privacy. I proposed a new model in my testimony that would create greater accountability in the way personal information is managed by private organizations and the government alike. And in the spring of 2003 I started work on a book with the title: Your Electronic Soul - Why you must… and how you can… take control of your personal information and digital identity.

Here is an excerpt from my introduction:
Your Electronic Soul is a small book with a big idea. It jumps into the middle of a raging battle in the quest for corporate profitability, the need for national security and the inalienable right in a free society for personal privacy. It is a blueprint for a radical and intuitive new model built on the premise that in an information economy, our personal information and identity is a valuable asset. And like all valuable assets powerful forces are vying to harvest and control it. Big businesses are trying to control the asset, and governments want it too. And in the shadows of cyberspace sundry characters are lurking, trying to steal it. The problem is that while everyone wants control over the asset we have no established framework that defines who has the legal right to claim ownership. Business and government is claiming rights to what they collect at the same time as the individuals’ legal rights to access, manage, and control information about themselves are very limited.

In short, we don’t own or control personal information about ourselves, information that is becoming more comprehensive, detailed and intimate every day and this spells big trouble, the scope of which is only beginning to become apparent.

Your Electronic Soul exposes the core issue and dilemma of personal information control and ownership facing the information society. It does so by moving beyond diagnostics and analysis and proposing a powerful, usable framework that gets to the heart of the matter – how to reconcile the reality and inevitability of living in a “surveillance society” with the rights of the individual to control their identities and protect their “electronic souls”.

I chose not to write the book back then, but am glad to see that the issues of personal information control and ownership are getting well deserved air time. Earlier this week Google called for Global Privacy Rules within 5 years. And on a related topic, a few veritable 2.0-ers Smarr, Canter, Scoble and Arrington recently posted a call for a Bill of Rights for the Social Web. It proposes "ownership" as one of those rights. While a great start, this issue is much bigger than "taking my friends with me" from Facebook and other social networks. Central to this discussion is the legal issue of personal information ownership. In order to legally own something there needs to be an underlying model that makes it possible to claim and protect ownership.

When I was working on the book I discussed the issues of personal information ownership with a few IP lawyers I know, but the moment you put the word "ownership" and "personal information" in the same sentence they uniformly seem to get palpitations. As far as I'm concerned, property rights is the best model we have. But, the legal community will shoot that down based on case history.

So while I agree that Ownership and Control are two foundational elements, there are significant legal hurdles that stand in the way of real change. Here is what I said about it in my non-book:

Let us therefore begin with the simple and powerful notion that individuals should own and control personal information about themselves – their identities and reputations. Today we have no clear and accepted model for ownership of personal information. This does not make sense in an information economy where information is becoming an increasingly valuable, critical and strategic asset. While legal property rights and copyrights are established foundations upon which our entire economy rests, personal information rights have not yet been defined so we must begin here.

Until we agree who has primary interest in and control of the information that represents an intimate profile of our private person, the legal landscape will continue to be a patchwork and we won’t be able to define broad and mutually beneficial practices that govern the use of personal information. The best we can expect is a wide variety of unpredictable and inconsistent use, the worst is gross inaccuracies, lost economic value and threats to our civil liberties.

Between the inadequate patchwork of international privacy rules (or total lack thereof), the social networks trying to create lock-in, the Patriot Act shenanigans that render us open to all kinds of surveillance and wiretapping and the rising public awareness of how much information is available on each and every one of us in the public domain... might there be a perfect storm brewing?

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