Our economy is predicated on the fundamental notion of property rights. I contend that the information economy ought to be predicated on an equally important notion: personal information rights.
Personal information is becoming an evermore-important asset, which raises the question of ownership. A valuable, mission-critical asset without clearly defined ownership invites chaos and abuse. My solution is simple, if controversial. In 2001, I testified at a U.S. Senate hearing on the Internet and privacy and proposed a new framework that I’ve also written about in this column.
My framework suggests giving people primary interest in their personal information. This means you should be able to control who gets to use your information. I imagine a world where you deposit your personal information with personal information managers, that is, the companies you do business with. They manage your information in ways that offer you tangible benefits. If there are no benefits, it’s easy to withdraw your assets (your personal information) and deposit them with a competitor. (Yes, there are certain record-keeping laws that can make this difficult. But given my proposed framework requires a major overhaul in how we think about managing personal information, I’ll skip such details for now.)
And as if the above isn’t a big enough challenge, individuals creating and posting their own content on blogs, discussion boards, and other social forums raises an additional set of complex issues about ownership and rights. People’s postings represent knowledge and insight. What rights do I have to the information and knowledge that I create on blogs and other social services?
Though existing copyright law can be used to protect certain rights, copyright is woefully outdated in the digital domain, as I discussed recently. Moreover, online postings will be combined with personal information profiles to make all kinds of connections between people and their knowledge and information.
Sites such as del.icio.us offer a small taste of what happens when groups of people can share something as simple as bookmarks. An interesting question is what rights, if any, do I have when I share my bookmarks through del.icio.us? Am I a publisher, so the links I gather should be protected by copyright? Now that del.icio.us is a part of Yahoo, what can and should Yahoo do as far as combining all that personal information I’ve deposited with them, from my bookmarks and Flickr photos to my Yahoo Groups postings and Yahoo 360 page?
In the world of user publishing and sharing, we’re witnessing the beginnings of what is bound to be a dysfunctional marriage of personal information management and intellectual property protection.
A friend recently pointed out an interesting distinction between how copyright treats recipes and book lists. There’s no copyright protection if you reformat, that is, add value, to a recipe. But publisher is protected with book lists. (RecipeGullet offers some interesting and easy reading on recipe copyright law.) Is a bookmark list more like a recipe collection or a book list? What about a series of blog posts where I simply reference other sites with some commentary?
Is a simple privacy statement enough to take care of your digital rights? Surely the answer is no.
Let me suggest companies present their customers and users with a digital bill of rights. It would spell out the principles governing the information a user submits or creates using a company’s tools and services. Take the fictional company, Yoogle. Its digital bill of rights might look something like this:
- Any personal information provided to Yoogle is controlled by the user submitting it. Yoogle may use the information to provide services to its users and to support its primary means of business. Yoogle will not sell or share this information without obtaining the user’s explicit consent.
- Yoogle will provide an easy means to withdraw any personal information that a user has submitted or that Yoogle has collected should the user chose to terminate her relationship with the company.
- Knowledge and information created by individual users using Yoogle’s services are owned by the user. Yoogle will allow users to control access to their knowledge and information while reserving the right to monetize it by, for instance, the display of non-intrusive advertising.
- Many of Yoogle’s services encourage and facilitate sharing of third-party information and personal knowledge. Yoogle will protect a creator’s rights and respect existing copyright and decency laws.
Though by no means complete, this captures some of the key issues surrounding personal information and user-created content. Yoogle should be able to use the meta-knowledge it extracts from my information to make delightful, unexpected connections for me and other users. If it uses what I have shared with it to help me discover new, interesting people, information, and even ads, I’ll have no issues. Yet I want to know the intimate portrayal Yoogle is able to create in its systems is something I can access and control should it cause me concern.
Recently, I’ve been having an interesting rubber-hits-the-road experience where I’m testing my long-held beliefs against some very real-world practicalities. In the very near future, I’ll launch a service that, not unlike our fictional Yoogle, will use information submitted and created by its users to connect people and their knowledge and information in powerful, new ways.
Will the above approach and philosophy work for my business? Some immediate practical concerns relate to the restrictions it could place on how I operate the business in the future. How do we maintain flexibility while honoring our users’ bill of rights? What happens if we decide to sell the company? What if we must change our business model in ways in which a bill of rights unduly restricts us?
Should I give our users rights that could limit my flexibility going forward when I’m not legally obligated to do so? My answer so far: of course I should. Making their rights clear to them is the right thing to do. It’s good business. It builds trust and recognizes the shared value created by my company and its customers. I plan to give it my best effort to launch the service with a digital bill of rights.
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