Do you own your data stream?

by mike on February 8, 2010

TechCrunch posted an article this past weekend on the startup Blippy and how Amazon is insisting that the company stop collecting user purchase data and erase all data that was previously collected. The article got me thinking about our personal data streams, the implicit web and ownership. Many investors and technorati have previously blogged and talked about the rise of platforms that capture data based on our implicit actions on the web, so no need to rehash that here.

A question worth discussing is who owns your data stream. Wait a minute, don’t I own my tweets on Twitter, status updates on Facebook, photos on Flickr, emails on Gmail, bookmarks on Delicious and reviews on Yelp? Not necessarily and define “own”. Well, does the ownership lie with the user who generated the data, the company that captured it or someone else? If it’s the company that captured it, does the user have rights to the data and can the user share the data without the company’s permission? These are all important questions that can affect future implicit web innovation and I’m not sure we have a good answer to any of them.

In the case of Blippy, if users gave permission to collect their data wouldn’t that suffice for Amazon? Well actually no, probably not. I haven’t read Amazon’s terms of service, but I could almost guarantee data generated by users is property of the company. This is particularly true of companies with advertising based revenue models. Google’s success shows how valuable data can be. Google is actually an interesting case to take a closer look at. In their terms of service, the company claims all content created by you is your property and not the company’s. Technically, Google is licensing the content from you. So, I own the videos that I upload to YouTube and emails that I send with Gmail, but Google monetizes my content, doesn’t share the revenue and restricts access to my data or some of my data?

I don’t see a good solution to this problem any time soon. Many would argue that data ownership isn’t a problem; it’s a byproduct of the implicit web. I disagree. It is a problem and with the proliferation of mobile devices, rise of the real-time web and explosion of implicit user data the problem will be exacerbated in years to come. As a user I can accept if I don’t own my data and companies are making money from it. My issue is when the playing field is not level and incumbents create walled gardens. My vote is open and free access to ALL of my data. I may not get to own my data in the long run, but I don’t have to support companies that are not open. Let innovation happen.

  • Dave

    I think the ownership of data is not a debate anymore - you are giving companies your data in exchange for access to their free service. No reason you should have ownership of the data if you are getting something in return. I think the questions are what rights you should have to your data, e.g. what is the licensing agreement you are giving to companies for your data. Should your data be destroyed if you remove your account with a service, can you review/update what data has been collected on you (I think Google is doing a better job exposing this than most), can you choose who your data will be shared with, secured/unsecured API access to data, etc... I think businesses will default to the least amount of restrictions on data usage, and it would take someone like the FTC to set limits. That'd be really tough to enforce, especially on smaller companies, and might limit innovation as well.

    Tough problem. My guess is that best solution is to require websites to post obvious disclaimers on the use of the data collected, and let consumers decide. Right now it's not obvious that happens, and no one reads the privacy policies on the website. Just imagine the level of detail Mint has on people, I don't think most consumers recognize just how much privacy they've traded for convenience...

  • Good commentary. The rights issue is a big one and probably won't be answered any time soon. As I consumer, I'd like to at least have a say in who can or can't access my data. Take the Blippy example and apply it to Mint. That's equivalent to the banks and credit card companies deciding not to allow Mint to access any of their data. Thankfully this didn't happen, but what if?

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