Monday, February 16, 2009

Who owns you(r electronic soul)?

Another privacy storm is brewing fueled by Facebook's Feb 4th change to their terms of service (TOS). See posts on Consumerist and LA Times for good discussion and summaries.

In the fall of 2007 I wrote this post about a new framework and model for personal information ownership. Here's a brief excerpt:
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.
The debate that Facebook's TOS change has ignited has its root in the fact that the most important asset in the information economy - personal information - has no underlying legal ownership model. It's basically a finders keepers world out there in personal information land. If you manage to get hold of my personal information, you can claim ownership to it.

My Facebook profile is a pretty intimate portrait of me. Besides the obvious personal information that I have entered, it contains my social graph, my semi-public and private communications patterns and history, a knowledge of the ads I have clicked on and more. Yet, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Layer on the information that Google gathers about my search and surf paths, my credit card records and as of recent, my genetic footprint courtesy of Navigenics. What surfaces is a snapshot that tells someone with access and the right predictive tools more about me than I am probably aware of myself.

Facebook's Zuckerberg posted this response today on the FB blog: On Facebook, People Own and Control Their Information. While vague and non-commital, directionally it is promising. I'm in the Facebook-probably-does–not-have-nefarious-motives camp. The problem is that this is a much bigger issue than what's in a Facebook TOS.

The big issue is not whether Facebook or Google know too much about us. (They do, get over it.) Nor whether they get to keep our records if we kill our accounts. This issue is about people not having control or legal rights over their personal life stream and digital footprints.

The debate needs to be lot more comprehensive than a discussion of what happens to our personal messages if we close our account on Facebook. A meaningful outcome cannot be affected by any single player. Personally, I would like to see leadership from Washington on this issue. We've heard a promise of "change". Isn't it time we change the way we own and control our electronic souls?

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