Who Owns the Digital You? (Part 2 of 3)

“Identity will be one of the defining themes in the next five years of the Web.” — Aza Raskin, Former Head of User Design Mozilla, now VP at Jawbone
“The battle that is underway is not a battle over the future of privacy and publicity. It’s a battle over choice and informed consent.” — danah boyd

“Blue Beetle” gets it: He is an online commenter who wrote this about advertiser-driven free sites:

“If you aren’t paying for it, then you aren’t the customer any more, you are the product being sold.”

He understands deeply what I was trying to express in my last post.

Most of the major players in the Internet space (Facebook, Google, etc.) have moved to a single economic model with a singular goal: to make public, monetize and commodify the “digital you” — the online persona that is your digital identity in the networked marketplaces we increasingly all inhabit.

They claim to do so with your privacy top of mind, and that their past privacy omissions, commissions and statements calling folks who trust them with their identities “dumb f**ks” are all sophomoric distant events. These players all clearly vie to own the “digital you.” But who should own the “digital you”? Culturally, Americans have answered this question in two seemingly contradictory ways.

First, we as a culture have answered that nobody but YOU should own you. Digital or otherwise. It’s the “keep out of my business and stay off my lawn” principle.

As described in the Fourth Amendment, we should be free from “unreasonable searches” and James Madison specifically called out that this freedom included our “papers” — the 18th century equivalent of our “digital self.” Our Supreme Court captured this same meme in 1891, when they wrote: “No right is held more sacred, or is more carefully guarded, by the common law, than the right of every individual to the possession and control of his own person, free from all restraint or interference of others.”

And English Law prior to that also kept with the “keep out of my business and stay off my lawn” principle: “The house of every one is to him as his castle and fortress, as well for his defence against injury and violence as for his repose.”

So as a culture we have answered that as long as we’re not committing abject criminal acts, we have the fundamental right to “own,” “possess,” and “control” ourselves. And stay off my lawn. Period. End of story.

Well, almost end of story.

There is that second answer, which is that from almost the beginning of our country onward, we Americans have felt it worthwhile to freely trade away bits and pieces of our identity to other individuals and companies in exchange for a valuable good or service.

I could choose from countless examples but here is a fun one: starting in the 1890s, millions of Americans found it worthwhile to trade a key bit of their identity (their name and address) to the private corporation then known as the “R. W. Sears Watch Company” in exchange for an easier way to buy watches (and then later almost anything). The Sears Roebuck Catalogue began as a watch company and grew into the Amazon.com of its day using the new medium of national postal delivery. It was a trade off we as a culture deemed worth making.

And we’ve continued to make some version of that trade off ever since: Whether it be letting our supermarket know every purchase we make in exchange for slightly cheaper groceries, using a speed pass to make going through private toll roads that much faster but letting the company track our use of their private roads, offering up our current location via our phone in exchange for better directions to our next appointment, or, in the current context, allowing a search engine to add a cookie to track us in limited ways, in exchange for better search results.

These are all trade offs that are culturally acceptable to us… as long as we are the ones making those trade offs. Share as much or as little of the “digital you” as you think worth trading — and even then only on a “need to know” basis — but YOU need to be the one in charge of how little or much that is. The technical term for this is “selective disclosure.”

But here is the huge issue: often we aren’t the ones in control. Not actually.

Did you ever consciously say “yes” to the hundreds of tracking cookies on your browser? You may have clicked “yes” on the different online terms of use agreements, but did you ever REALLY say yes to allowing Facebook to know what jeans you buy, because you clicked once too fast, or to allow Apple to track your precise location 24/7, because you wanted an iTunes track bought for your phone?

Researcher danah boyd captured this exact feeling when she wrote, “people are being duped, tricked, coerced, and confused into doing things where they don’t understand the consequences” and she adds that when services claim to give you control but then do so only with confusing and seemingly purposefully bad user interfaces, “that is completely unfair. It gives users the illusion of choice and hides the details away from them ‘for their own good.’”

Let’s be frank: this and this and this are just not made to be understood. Lawyers were paid good money to ensure you wouldn’t understand and or read too closely.

Author Dan Gilmor sums it up well (as he often does):

“We should all be uncomfortable about moving more and more of our cyber-activities into the embrace of a single company — and I don’t care if it’s Google… or Facebook or anyone else… Easy to use, which Facebook certainly is, does not equate with good for you in the end… The only party who should own your identity online is you.”

Amen. But how?

The building blocks have been obvious for some while…I’ll cover that in the next post.