You don’t nor need to own your data

One of the biggest questions the DataPortability project has grappled with (and where the entire industry is not at consensus), is a fairly basic question with some profound consequences: who owns your data. Well I think I have an answer to the question now, which I’ve now cross-validated across multiple domains. Given we live in the Information Age, this certainly matters in every respect.

So who owns “your data”? Not you. Or the other guy. Or the government, and the MicroGooHoo corporate monolith. Actually, no one does. And if they do, it doesn’t matter.

People like to conflate the concept of property ownership to that of data ownership. I mean it’s you right? You own your house so surely, you own your e-mail address, your name, your date of birth records, your identity. However when you go into the details, from a conceptual level, it doesn’t make sense.

Ownership of data
First of all, let’s define property ownership: “the ability to deny use of an asset by another entity”. The reason you can claim status to owning your house, is because you can deny someone else access to your property. Most of us have a fence to separate our property from the public space; others like the hillbillies sit in their rocking chair with a shot gun ready to fire. Either way, it’s well understood if someone else owns something, and if you trespass, the dogs will chase after you.

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The characteristics of ownership can be described as follows:
1) You have legal title recognising in your legal jurisdiction that you own it.
2) You have the ability to enforce your right of ownership in your legal jurisdiction
3) You can get benefits from the property.

The third point is key. When people cry out loud “I own my data”, that’s essentially the reason (when you take out the Neanderthal emotionally-driven reasoning out of the equation). Where we get a little lost though, is when we define those benefits. It could be said, that you want to be able to control your data so that you can use it somewhere else, and so you can make sure someone else doesn’t use it in a way that causes you harm.

Whilst that might sound like ownership to you, that’s where the house of cards collapses. The reason being, unless you can prove the ability to deny use by another entity, you do not have ownership. It’s a trap, because data is not like a physical good which cannot be easily copied. It’s like a butterfly locked in a safe: the moment you open that safe up, you can say good bye. If data can only satisfy the ownership definition when you hide it from the world, that means when it’s public to the world, you no longer own it. And that sucks, because data by nature is used for public consumption. But what if you could get the same benefits of ownership – or rather, receive benefits of usage and regulate usage – without actually ‘owning’ it?

Property and data – same same, but different
Both property and data are assets. They create value for those who use them. But that’s where the similarity’s end.

Property gains value through scarcity. The more unique, the more valuable. Data on the other hand, gains value through reuse. The more derivative works off it, means the more information generated (as information is simply data connected with other data). The more information, the more knowledge, the more value created – working its way along the information value chain. If data is isolated, and not reused, it has little value. For example, if a company has a piece of data but is not allowed to ever use it – there is no value to it.

Data gains value through use, and additional value through reuse and derivative creations. If no one reads this blog, it’s a waste of space; if thousands of people read it, its value increases – as these ideas are decimated. To give one perspective on this, when people create their own posts reusing the data I’ve created, I generate value through them linking back to me. No linking, no value realised. Of course, I get a lot more value out of it beyond page rank juice, but hopefully you realise if you “steal” my content (with at least some acknowledgement to me the person), then you are actually doing me a favour.

Ignore the above!
Talking about all this ownership stuff doesn’t actually matter; it’s not ownership that we want. Let’s take a step back, and look at this from a broader, philosophical view.

Property ownership is based on the concept that you get value from holding something for an extended period of time. But in an age of rapid change, do you still get value from that? Let’s say, we lose the Holy War for people being able to ‘own’ their data. Facebook – you win – you now ‘own’ me. This is because it owns the data about me – my identity, it would appear, is under the control of Facebook – it now owns, that “I am in a relationship”. However, the Holy War might have been lost but I don’t care. Because Facebook owns crap – as six months ago, I was in a relationship. Now I’m single and haven’t updated my status. The value for Facebook, is not in owning me in a period of time: it’s in having access to me all the time – because one way they translate that data into value is advertising, and targeting ads is pointless if you have the wrong information to base your targetting on. Probably the only data that can be static in my profile, is birth-date and gender – but with some tampering and cosmetics, even those can be altered now!

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Think about this point raised by Luk Vervenne, in response to my above thoughts on the VRM mailing list, by considering employability. A lot of your personal information, is actually generated by interactions with third parties, such as the education institution you received your degree from. So do I own the fact that I have a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Sydney? No I don’t, as that brand and the authenticity is that of the university. What I do have however, is access & usage rights to it. Last time I checked, I didn’t own the university, but if someone quizzes me on my academic record, there’s a hotline ready to confirm it – and once validated, I get the recognition that translates into a benefit for me.

Our economy is now transitioning from a goods-producing to a service-performing and experience-generating economy. It’s hard for us to imagine this new world, as our conceptual understanding of the world is built on the concept of selling, buying and otherwise trading goods that ultimately ends in us owning something. But this market era of the exchange of goods is making way for “networks” and the concept of owning property will diminish in importance, as our new world is will now place value on the access.

This is a broader shift. As a young man building his life, I cannot afford to buy a house in Sydney with its overinflated prices. But that’s fine – I am comfortable in renting – all I want is ‘access’ to the property, not the legal title to it which quite frankly would be a bad investment decision even aside from the current economic crisis. I did manage to buy myself a car, but I am cursing the fact that I wasted my money on that debt which could have gone to more productive means – instead, I could have just paid for access to public transport and taxis when I needed transport. In other words, we now have an economy where you do not need to own something to get the value: you just need access.

That’s not to say property ownership is a dead concept – rather, it’s become less important. When we consider history as well, the concept of the masses “owning” property was foreign anyway – there was a class system with the small but influential aristocracy that would own the land, with the serfs working on the land. “Ownership” really, is a new ‘established’ concept to our world – and it’s now ready to get out of vogue again. We’ve now reached a level of sophistication in our society where we no longer need the security of ownership to get the benefits in our life – and these property owners that we get our benefits from, may appear to yield power but they also have a lot of financial risk, government accountability and public scrutiny (unlike history’s aristocracy).

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Take a look at companies and how they outsource a lot of their functions (or even simplify their businesses’ value-activities). Every single client of mine – multi-million dollar businesses at that as well – pay rent. They don’t own the office space they are in, as for them to get the benefits, they instead simply need access which they get through rental. “Owning” the property is not part of the core value of the business. Whilst security is needed, because not having ownership can put you at the mercy of the landlord, this doesn’t mean you can’t contract protection like my clients do as part of the lease agreements.

To bring it back to the topic, access to your data is what matters – but it also needs to be carefully understood. For example, access to your health records might not be a good thing. Rather, you can control who has access to that data. Similarly, whilst no one might own your data, what you do have is the right to demand guidelines and principles like what we are trying to do at the DataPortability Project on how “your” data can be used. Certainly, the various governmental privacy and data protection legislation around the world does exactly that: it governs how companies can use personally identifiable data.

Incomplete thoughts, but I hope I’ve made you think. I know I’m still thinking.

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