We have entered the era of big data, but many questions remain unanswered. For instance, who owns all of this information, anyway? If you take a photo and post it on Facebook or Twitter, does it still belong to you? If you create a presentation with Google Docs, does Google now legally own the content in those slides? What about posting a video on YouTube? Generally speaking, do you have the right to take your data with you when you stop using a social network or a cloud-based service? Should companies that provide free services have the right to monetize user data forever?
As a March segment on 60 Minutes demonstrated, data ownership is one of today’s most controversial, fascinating and important issues. Ubiquitous technology has resulted in vast digital breadcrumbs that scores of companies are utilizing. Some of these data brokers remain largely under the radar and it’s certainly easy to demonize them, but let’s not single them out. Even many retailers are recognizing the value in selling customer data. (For more on the ethics of companies like Target's data mining, check out my recent ZDNet interview.)
Food for thought
There are no simple answers to the thorny questions I've raised. I would ask, though, that you consider the following:
- American companies have always collected data; today, there’s just more of it and many breaches and disclosures are more public.
- Data brokers like Acxiom aren’t selling to themselves; they are fulfilling a legitimate business need.
- Is extremely targeted advertising really evil?
- In Europe, data-privacy laws are far more stringent than they are in the US.
- Big-box retailers need to use customer information to compete with Amazon.com and the challenge of showrooming.
There's an interesting parallel here with companies that operate in environmentally-friendly manners. Many people gladly pay more for green products and services. Whole Foods is a case in point.
In the future, organizations will be able distinguish themselves by their data-protection and -usage policies.
What say you?
Anytime a person signs up on services like Facebook or Google Docs, buried in pages of T&C, is a statement that they own the data the person will post or have right to use the data for marketing purposes.