The recent Google-Facebook flap demonstrates that the hottest battleground for users’ control of the data they pump into these online services is the sites’ Terms of Service. Why? Because when you’re not a paying customer, you’re not in a hugely strong bargaining position. As I put it to ReadWriteWeb in their piece on data portability implications of the debate: Facebook’s end-users are not its customers; they’re the product. (Or as my Data Without Borders pal Steve Greenberg sometimes puts it, users are crops…getting harvested. Oh dear.)
For all “free” online services, it’s worthwhile to ask: What am I paying instead? If it’s not money, is it attention to ads? …behavioral cues about myself and my preferences? …personally identifiable data? …beta-testing time? …what, exactly? Payment for services rendered isn’t a bad thing. But it’s always something, and you might as well not be a chump.
That’s why I like Frank Catalano’s new TechFlash post viewing personal data sharing through an economic lens and discussing how to barter your data more equitably. Regarding his second point, “hide”: I’d actually be thrilled if more online services that were marketed to individuals offered a premium for-pay option; it would keep out the riff-raff and give people more meaningful control over their relationships with the companies offering the services.
It’s not just individuals who are leaving something on the table, though. I think there’s a big untapped market in selective sharing, which is like “privacy” (poor abused word), without the assumption that minimal disclosure is the be-all and end-all. What would you start sharing with a selective set of people and businesses, if you could have confidence that your expectations around context, control, choice, and respect would be met?
That’s why I think Dave McClure has it right with his notion of intimacy as a market opportunity Facebook currently has no idea how to address. (“maybe I only want to tell a few close buddies about that episode with the VERY BAD bean burrito” — yeah, thanks for keeping this sharing episode VERY selective. :-)
And that’s why I think Esther Dyson doesn’t quite have it right in saying privacy is a marketing problem. Her exhortation to “Know your customer, and talk to that person as an individual, not as someone in a bucket” has a natural barrier: Facebook and others are serving their actual customers very well indeed by, uh, making more product.
And that’s why I think User-Managed Access could help: Becoming paying customers of services that need our data is good. But becoming, in addition, producers of data products as peers in a selective data-sharing network, and dictating our own Terms of Access for getting to them, is even better.