Unfortunately, your data usually belongs to the service


Last week, I wrote about Instagram's terms of service issues around content ownership, which to me proved, for the most part, you own your content on online services--but what you usually don't own is everything else.

That means, you own your photo or your status, but you don't own what the service learns about you from it, and everything else you share with it including what you like (or don't like), where you like to visit, businesses you frequent and so much more detail than you could ever imagine.

Before we get too far into data ownership discussion, it's worth noting that my friend Laurence Hart, who is CIO at AIIM, pointed out in a comment that my main argument in last week's Editor's Corner--that you own your content--isn't always a given and you should read the Terms of Service carefully if you have any doubts. He's right. A better title would have been "It's simple: You should own your content online services"--proving nothing is ever simple where lawyers are concerned.

The data issue is another matter altogether. Even though we bitch and moan and scream to the rafters when someone threatens to use our content without our explicit permission, we seem to grow timid when it comes to data. We have come to believe it's the price we pay for using an online service like Facebook for free. The trade-off is we get increasingly more ads and we give up all rights to our data. But should we?

The issue here is that data has long-term value. It's all well and good, for example, that Twitter is an independent business today, but it could be bought and sold many times in the coming years, and each time it gets sold, your data gets sold with it.

In fact, Ryan Block--writing last week in the New York Times Bits Blog--told a story about how he started getting email about a long unused Friendster account. Friendster was one of the first successful online social communities, but it fell out of favor years ago. Today, the brand lives on as a gaming community, which according to Block is aimed mostly at Southeast Asian youth. Imagine his surprise when about year ago, he started receiving emails trumpeting the updated Friendster community. It seems his long-dormant profile had been sold along with the brand, and they started spamming him--and therein lies the problem.

We spread our data around a variety of services with little thought about the long-term ownership implications. Talk about redefining the long tail. As Block wrote, "As technology companies work overtime to make it easier to sign up and maintain accounts, little regard is given to the long-term ownership and use of our data."

And, as I thought about this problem, I realized there are no easy answers. You can of course delete your account and all the data you've shared during your membership on the service, but there's no guarantee that your page in the big social media spreadsheet gets deleted with it. In other words, everything they know about you is still stored on a server somewhere ready to be packaged and sold to the highest bidder, possibly multiple times.

One idea would be to legislate that data can't be sold to another service without your explicit permission. It would be one way to limit the exposure of our data, especially to less scrupulous third-party data services that might not be as careful with your information as the original service. 

We could also simply buy back our rights to the data by having a pay version with more control of our information and a free one with less. But such a system could put those with fewer means at a disadvantage and not everyone would understand the implications of using the free one, and what that meant in terms of what they shared on the service.

It seems that the only way to deal with this is to legislate some basic terms of ownership for online services. Certainly these services need to be much more open about what they do with your data and they have to provide simple, clear guidelines that are not buried in legalese that nobody is going to read.

One thing we have learned is that it takes years for laws to catch up with technology. We are continually struggling with that today around online issues of privacy, ownership, data sovereignty and so much more, and Congress, the courts and government agencies seem ill equipped to deal with these issues.

For now, if we want to use these services, and obviously a lot of us do, we have little choice but to hold our noses and accept the terms as defined by the service. Or we could pay attention to the Instagram fiasco, which proved that if enough of us get upset, the services respond. We haven't done that yet when it comes to our data, but perhaps it's time we did. - Ron