Who Owns Your Data?

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Towards the end of the day, I finally rediscovered how to use Twitter on my Blackberry. Then I discovered I could retweet faster than I could type. Since a lot of 965897_88613402_data_stock_xchng_royalty_free_300folks had similar ideas to mine, retweeting became the most efficient method for me to get those ideas out of my head and into the Twittosphere known as #SMACSRIT.

#SMACSRIT was the hashtag for the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Social Media and Communication Symposium (SMACS) II, a lively, entertaining and enlightening event held on – at least what started out as – a rainy Thursday on September 29, 2011. I could write about each session, but, perhaps bowing to the behavioral phenomenon called “recency” – the tendency to overweight the last thing seen – I’ll focus on the final keynoter, who posed an intriguing question while simultaneously (and unknowingly) demonstrating why dinosaurs die.

I don’t usually ask questions at these events, but when Maggie Fox, CEO and founder of Social Media Group in Toronto, Canada declared Facebook didn’t have the right to make money on our personal data because – and I paraphrase – “taxpayers built and paid for the information superhighway it uses to make that money,” I couldn’t hold back. Imbued with the supply-and-demand balance of anyone swimming every day in the rarified ocean of the real-world economy, two thoughts immediately struck me.

First, as much as I disdain Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook (every time I finally figure it out, they change the darn thing!), I’m pretty sure, to the extent taxpayers in American (I can’t speak for Canada) really did build and pay for the information superhighway, Mark, Facebook and all Mark’s Facebook friends have paid more than their share of that cost. But, this line of thinking descends into the savagery of class warfare and we’ll leave those dregs for the political world.

My second thought suggests a more profound question, one that ultimately led to my asking Fox, “If you feel Facebook should pay us for using our personal data, how much should we pay Facebook for using their software?” Implied in this lives the trade-offs we face with each purchase decision we make. For example, when buying a car, we need to answer whether the value of a more expensive automobile justifies its increased cost. At some point – and this point may be different for every individual – there exists a limit to the price we’re willing to pay for any particular item.

Certainly all but the most naïve believe they’re getting Facebook for free. The typical user understands the trade-off: in exchange for my sharing certain private information Facebook utilizes to sell advertising, I have the ability to use the Facebook system to post inane family photographs, harass “friends” I haven’t seen in ages and play silly time-wasting games that threaten to reduce American productivity to that of a Stone Age culture.  In many ways, this mimics the way we get those “free” magazines just for confessing demographic information to a modern stone tablet (or stone laptop or stone desktop, pick whatever geologic era you’re most comfortable with).

There comes a time, however, when the cost of revealing inner-most secrets outweighs the need to build imaginary farms or raise virtual crime families. That’s when we stop showing our privates, or at least that’s when we only show them for a dollar slipped into our garter belt.

Fox, like the Chicago Tribune wrote the day before her speech (“Selling our souls to Mark Zuckerberg,” Chicago Tribune, September 28, 2011), feels Facebook should be paying us now. Despite the folks in the room who voiced their approval for targeted ads over spam, she maintains we should earn revenue from allowing those ads to target us. Fox theorizes the value of our data far exceeds the value of Facebook to us (which, by the way, in answer to my question, she thinks is worth $35 a year).

Three quarters a billion consumer purchasing decisions would seem to contradict her hypothesis.

Perhaps that’s what a common sense economist might conclude. What do you conclude?

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