"Data ownership", "social networking" and other nonsense

Joe Andrieu, who co-chairs the Information Sharing Work Group at the Kantara Initiative, has written a superb piece here, neatly summing up why taking about personal data in terms of “ownership” just doesn’t work.

I’m certainly not going to try and re-hash Joe’s analysis; it stand perfectly well in its own right. All I will offer is this: language and thought are closely intertwined… somewhere on the spectrum between Chomsky and the Neuro-Linguistic Programmers, there’s a happy medium where the thoughts we have are intimately influenced by the ways in which we are able to articulate them… and vice versa.

There are times when a simple phrase takes over as a convenient shorthand for a complex set of concepts – and once that happens, it seems it’s all too easy to ignore the underlying complexity and collude in the belief that what we’re talking about is as simple as the phrase we’re using to talk about it. I notice, in passing, that Noam Chomsky refuses to refer to “the war on drugs”, insisting instead on calling it “the war on certain drugs”. That’s pretty much what I’m getting at here, and I’d argue that the phrase “data ownership” is a prime example.

We know what “data” is, right? It’s a simple enough word. And we all know what “ownership” means… so “data ownership” must mean something correspondingly simple. Except that (as Joe’s piece lucidly explains) if you start by asking questions framed in terms of “data ownership”, it leads you down a path which is neither long nor fruitful.

So, here are two ‘thought experiments’ I’d like to recommend, when you are faced with a couple of these deceptively simple shorthand phrases. Whenever you encounter a question like “who owns my personal data?”, try re-framing it in different terms.

“What rights do I have over data about me?”
“What rights do others have concerning data about me?”
“What duties do I and others have concerning that data?”

You should find that these questions, which acknowledge that you can have rights and duties quite aside from any notions of “ownership”, generate a far more practical and productive conversation.

Here’s the second “shorthand phrase”, and it relates to another one of my current bugbears: “social networking”. You’ve probably heard my micro-rants about this before, online or elsewhere, but in essence… I think the phrase “social networking” is actually encouraging us to blind ourselves to the fact that “networked interaction” and “social interaction” work by entirely different sets of rules – and that if you engage in networked interaction while assuming that you’re playing by the rules of (face to face) social interaction, you’re deluding yourself and probably putting your privacy and self-determination at risk.

Consider this: have you ever heard two children having an animated conversation in another room, and walked in there only to have their previous conversation come to an abrupt end and be replaced with something entirely innocuous? Quite.

The things they were happy to talk about one-to-one are not the same as the things they are happy to talk about with a parent in the room. Surprise, surprise. We know that. We all know that. We’ve known that ever since that day a teacher walked into the room just too late for us to abort the punch-line of a dirty joke. Human beings are social animals, and learning these things is part of being human.

So why do we blithely ignore the fact that there’s a third party involved in all our supposedly “friend-to-friend” interactions in “social networks”? And why are we surprised that their interests do not necessarily co-incide with ours? We want to share gossip and photos with our friends, and the third party wants to monetize that relationship.

OK – so please, when you encounter the phrase “social networking”, try replacing it with “networked interaction masquerading as social interaction”. My hope is that that will encourage you to bear in mind that, despite all appearance to the contrary, you are engaged in something which does not follow the normal rules of face-to-face personal interaction. That should be healthier for your privacy and, over time, who knows – it might even encourage networked interaction sites to be a little more up-front about the hidden side of what they are offering.