thoughts and observations of a privacy, security and internet researcher, activist, and policy advisor

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Jigsaw and the economy of personal information

The reports (and slashdot entry) on Jigsaw made me think again about economies of personal information. The company collects information people get about others from business cards or email signatures. For each data set you enter, you get two in return. You can also get points by correcting or updating information. Reportedly, they already have information on 3 million contacts at 150 000 companies. There are two aspects of information economy here: The institutional information exchange model, and the way personal information is conceptualized in the first place.

This kind of crowdsourcing is creating a monopoly supply and demand system with fixed prices. It is not a market like Ebay, where the prices are set according to supply and demand, and it is neither a public domain system with the accompanying gift economy. While Jigsaw CEO Jim Fowler tries to sell it as the wikipedia of business information, by restricting access to the database to people who pay or submit new information (and only very few pay), it directly contradicts the open and public domain model of wikipedia and related projects. By the way: It also creates additional personal data on who submitted how much information (probably also on who submitted what) needed for earning the exchange points - a bit like the "Linus" and "Bill" models in the FON wifi exchange social network. This would not be necessary if people just donate their wifi broadband to the neighbours, like wikipedians donate their knowledge to the world. The institutional setting - with many participants, but Jigsaw as the monopoly information broker between them - therefore creates additional privacy problems, which are not really reflected in the economy applied here.

The underlying principle or paradigm of course is the idea that information about persons can be owned by someone else. We Europeans normally see privacy as an unalienable human right, therefore we have some problems with the idea that personal data can be owned, sold and given up totally in exchange for some money or other commodities. Of course, if I give my business card to colleagues, they own the physical card and can use the information on it. That is the whole purpose of these things. But I normally have an expectation that they keep the card for themselves. I have met them in person or have sent an email to them, therefore I know they have my information, and I want them to. If they now give it to third parties without my knowledge, they violate what Helen Nissenbaum from NYU has called the "contextual integrity" of my personal information. Now, I can try to complain that someone violated my human right to informational privacy. Or I can use the property concept and put a copyright note on my business card. This is what David Batstone, an ethics professor at the University of San Francisco, predicts:
"People are going to start putting on their business cards a copyright or a privacy statement -- 'I explicitly copyrighted this information'," said Batstone, the ethics professor. "It could very well be that we head in that direction."
I am not sure this is the best solution, but it certainly is a consistent approach. On the other hand, if I don't have a copyright note, can people assume that my information is in the public domain? There is already an example for this confusion in the Web2.0 world: The guys at ClaimID want to be nice and therefore put all the information they have about you under a creative commons licence. Now others can not only use it out of context and without your knowledge, but may even remix it, ain't that cool?

The other extreme would be to have empty business cards, as Bob Blakley suggests tongue-in-cheek. He is also describing a more common-sensical way: Only let these systems give my information to others if they have asked me before. But then, you leave the property model and end up with privacy as a rights claim again.


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