Decentralizing our Data

In the past decade, a multitude of online tools and applications have been made available to us for “free.” But, they aren’t without cost. In the Economist article, The Incorporated Woman, Jennifer Lyn Morone describes her experience trying to take ownership of her data and finding out just how much it is worth. The article focuses on the business around our data and the huge profits made by big technology companies, like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Data is essentially, when used on commercial platforms, a form of currency to them.

Generating revenue from our data is referred to as data monetization. In his article Data = Opportunity: But Are You Monetizing Information?, RK Paleru observes that companies use our data in order to gain marketplace insights that help them create products and services that meet a perceived customer need. Paleru refers to these type of companies as info.-disruptors because monetization of information has disrupted many industries and displaced many traditional retailers, newspapers, recruiting firms and media companies.

Rise of the info-disruptors – While companies such as AmazonGoogleLinkedIn, and Netflix are all well known to monetize information, and in the process have displaced many retailers, newspapers, recruiting firms, and media companies respectively; many recent startups such as UberAirBnB, and Alibaba are disrupting many other industries.

Consider some of the commonly used applications and services that these companies offer:

  • Gmail, Docs, Calendar services by Google
  • Facebook and it’s other applications like WhatsApp and Instagram
  • Twitter

When Facebook was preparing to go public in 2012 an article, in the New York Time by Lori Andrews, Facebook is Using You exposes how…

[they make] money by selling ad space to companies that want to reach us. Advertisers choose key words or details — like relationship status, location, activities, favorite books and employment — and then Facebook runs the ads for the targeted subset of its 845 million users.

And shares how this is small compared to how…

Google took in more than 10 times as much, with an estimated $36.5 billion in advertising revenue in 2011, by analyzing what people sent over Gmail and what they searched on the Web, and then using that data to sell ads.

But Lori Andrew notes how ads could be seen as more of a nuisance but there are side effects such as…

[t]he bits and bytes about your life can easily be used against you. Whether you obtain a job, credit or insurance can be based on your digital doppelgänger — and you may never know why you’ve been turned down.

In a recent BBC article, Rob Crossley explores the question, Where in the world is my data and how secure is it?. He discovers the sheer volume of data Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon collect and store about us. No one really knows where all the data lives. This is scary! The data these companies collect is no longer under our control. Alistair Croll argues that this is a Civil Rights issue in Big data is our generation’s civil rights issue, and we don’t know it where he uses an example of how data could be used against you, violating not only your privacy but your rights.

If I collect information on the music you listen to, you might assume I will use that data in order to suggest new songs, or share it with your friends. But instead, I could use it to guess at your racial background. And then I could use that data to deny you a loan.

There are some lawsuits that have been started. One that has gotten some attention is the Fraley vs. Facebook where users got a $15 in the $20 million dollar settlement that includes more user control over how data is used. We are likely to see more of this in the coming years.

If we think about what we use on a daily basis that tends to include:

  • Email
  • Calendar
  • Documents
  • SMS
  • Chat
  • Social Media

These types of applications and communication tend to live in the cloud, which is a server somewhere accessible via the web. Jacob Silverman outlines how trends are created around apps, in this case Slack, affect our privacy and our lives very directly, aptly titled Big Brother is Watching, and highlights the power dynamics in providing software as a service platforms:

Who watches over our data, and who watches over us? The answer, apparently, is whoever administers the apps and networks that run our lives.

What would happen if we each start moving some of our data away from these commercial sources? Would that give us a bit more privacy and control? What would the cost be, since the data would not be monetized in the same way? Taking back control of our data and securing our privacy would require changes in our personal behaviors and to the way we interact with the cloud. What if you knew where the servers are, and who and how they are managed? What would you pay for those cloud services, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100 per month or per year? How much is your data worth? In 2012 Joe Mullin provides some context in How much do Google and Facebook profit from your data?.

Social platforms are a little different since they’re intended for connecting and sharing more broadly. That includes dialogue and interactions with a broader audience. It’s also about creating a personal presence on the web. But, is there a way to share and connect while still retaining privacy and having control of our data? There have been some efforts and we will explore one called IndieWeb and we’ll go into it in more detail in a future blog post.

Posted in Blog.