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We’re Not On The Web, We Are The Web

At a fascinating talk at SXSW this year, Jeff Jonas of IBM made the convincing case that our location data has become a ‘digital biometric’. If we accept that premise then an obvious yet extremely pressing question follows: who owns our digital ‘biometric’?

For example, when it comes to marketing we are no longer discrete entities; we are a stream of relational real-time data. This digital ‘biometric’ is not an object; it is a dynamic nigh-infinite stream of ‘you’, constantly being tracked, traded and used to (almost hilariously) re-target you.

The notion of a digital ‘biometric’ combined with effective legislation is at the core of how individuals might soon be enfranchised and encouraged to take control of their personal data stream, forever changing how we create services, sell products and advertise them to people. But first we need to sort out the legislation surrounding its use.

In 2012, privacy activist and politician Malte Spitz sued his telephony provider for the personal location data they held. The individuating nature of the data demonstrated how personal location data truly is, while his struggle for access highlighted the immense difficulty in gaining access to certain forms of personal data. Partly this is due to the glacial speed at which governments act in the digital domain, but it is also a problem because we do not yet know what use we might want legislation to regulate.

Data often doesn’t count as ‘intellectual property’ or have the benefit of copyright that things and ideas do, and in many countries it remains in legislative limbo. The sobering truth at the moment is that, absent good law,whoever has the data, owns the data. Yet personal data (in aggregate) has a tremendous commercial value when paired with one’s socioeconomic data.

In May 2013 a developer/artist named Federico Zannier launched ‘A Bite Of Me’: a kickstarter offering all of his mined personal data to whoever wants it, starting at a $1 a pop and he pithily notes “Last year the advertising industry made $30 Billion… I made $0.”

The insight from Zannier’s Kickstarter is that we might create significant personal revenue if we owned the data we generate (see Lanier’s ‘Who Owns The Future’). At the moment the value exchange we enter into when using online properties is straightforward: someone gives you a free online tool and in return they get to advertise to you. However this model is very fragile, especially if, consumers are able to simply and legally say no to advertising unless they explicitly allow it. Zannier’s project points the way to the emergence of a whole new sector of personal data driven businesses aggregating consumer data: brokerage firms, given agency to license your digital ‘biometric’; Insurance advisors, getting you the best possible car insurance, and even an oversight consortium policing these relationships.

Let’s say I’m a struggling student at University. My data broker says that right now if I give real-time access to group xyz I can get a 30% reduction on 12 stores near me and a one-off license fee for a 6 month exclusivity deal. I’d likely jump at the chance if it was a broker who represented things I am actually interested in. A class of businesses such as these would create a more competitive landscape and foster public interest in data privacy, whilst offering a more credible deal for both the advertiser and the consumer.

The crucial part of the equation is the role of governments in legislating for and enforcing some sort of ‘Digital Biometric Claim’, allowing any person to claim ownership of their data fingerprint, making it possible to trade in the data.

Historically, government approaches to web legislation have been disastrous, but genuinely useful work along these lines is happening. For example health data in the US through the Blue Button initiative provides a one click download of a patient’s unified medical history. Also of interest are efforts around data portability (popularised as the ‘right to be forgotten’ in the EU) and legislation around ‘midata’ in the UK, being spearheaded by Scottish Power, which gives consumers access to their energy spending and patterns. Usefully, Doc Searl’s VRM manifesto provides a structure for thinking about the vendor/consumer relationship in the age of the digital ‘biometric’. Taken together, these examples present models that can be used as a framework by business and government to work towards a better and more enfranchised web.

These notions are not just idle speculation or future-gazing, they are actively being considered and lobbied for and against across the western world. Here in the UK, Consumer Affairs MP Jo Swinson said:

“Many businesses reap huge commercial benefits from the information they gather from consumers’ daily spending patterns. Why shouldn’t consumers also benefit from this by having access to their own data to enable them to make better choices?”

A fundamental issue with advertising online is that people increasingly have to be coerced to engage with it. Is advertising broken? If it is it’s because people don’t like being hit on the head with hammers. As advertisers (I nominally am one), if we knew that people didn’t have to be coerced to watch our work, how much better might our work become? The consumers ability to leverage their digital biometric in an informed manner would, I believe, present a better reality for media buyers and advertisers: cheaper and better opted in data for the former and engaged actors in a consensual conversation for the latter.

Thanks to Rosie Spinks, Nik Butler, Amy Gale and Bill Thompson for reading and giving feedback on early versions of this article.
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