Who is in charge of my privacy?

by Doc Searls

It should concern us that most computer users -- ourselves included -- see themselves as dependent variables in respect to large companies' privacy policies, rather than as independent variables.

I mean, it's understandable that big companies think of themselves as In Control. Hey: they are. They should have an obligation to care about users' privacy, and to explain their privacy policies. But why should we behave as supplicants to these companies, or even to governments, in respect to how anybody or anything treats what we regard as private information about ourselves and what we do in the world?

The short answer is that we don't have much choice. For individuals, privacy control tools are still limited. Meanwhile, what needs to be controlled remains nearly unlimited. And intrusive by nature. Cookies, for example. They're these things that live in our browsers and give others the ability to track us like animals. Never mind that these can be used for many Good Things. The fact remains that they are symptomatic of an asymmetry of control ability. What we might generously call a "relationship" with cookie-placers is our ability to forbid or get rid of them. But figuring out what they are isn't easy, or likely to happen.

This all comes up for me because I'm at a lecture by Peter Fleischer, Global Privacy Counsel for Google. (The link is to his blog, not his job.) He's doing a very good job of explaining all the stuff Google does to care about privacy and to Do The Right Thing, whatever that may be. And conditions do vary, all over the world. There's a lot to care and talk about here.

The problem is that Google's perspective is Google's alone. It's a BigCo perspective. Which is fine, as far as it goes. Where it doesn't go, and where it can't go, is toward itself, from the individual. That's the side that needs to be built out -- not just so geeks can control their privacy, can assert their own privacy and information usage policies; but so anybody can do the same thing. Easily.

Personal control over one's own online privacy is important, of course. In fact it's necessary -- but also insufficient to a much larger area of concern and opportunity: relationship.

We have many relationships online. All of them, however, are defined and controlled (sometimes from both sides) within each company's silo. What we don't have are personally controlled global approaches to relationship, including privacy variables.

For example, let's say I want to publish my interest in buying a laptop that weighs less than five pounds and has a 500Gb hard drive, when such a thing is ready. Let's also say I want to do this in the open market, outside any company's silo. I don't want to do it only inside Amazon, or Google, or eBay. I want to do it in the open, and on my own terms. Let's also say that I want to make clear the fact that I have good money ready to spend on this product, and can be trusted as a customer -- but that I not reveal my name or any other information about myself that I don't want to reveal. Let's also say that I actually have relationships with some companies, and that I am willing to reveal that fact just to those companies.

What we're talking about here is selective disclosure in the context of what we might call a personal RFP. Joe Andrieu goes into some detail about what this might involve. It is critical to his case, and mine, that we see the user as the point of integration. One reason we haven't made progress on this is that we all still see companies (rather than individuals) as points of integration. This gives us countless CRM (customer relationship management) systems -- by companies -- each with its own silo. When we want to transcend these silos, we look for one bigger silo, which only compounds the problem. A good example of this is the idea of a national identity system, or a single place where everybody's health care data can live.

The ability of individuals to manage relationships with companies (and organizations, and government entities) -- what we call VRM -- is something that needs to live with ourselves. Nobody else can give it to us. In fact it's a mistake to look for them to give it to us, because then it's not ours. This is something we have to build for ourselves. As we've done with many other piles of code.

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