Who owns implicit data?

Photo by Kurtz

Barney Moran recently posted a comment expressing his concerns on Lijit’s use of the statistical data it could gather from blogs that installed its widget. I checked out Lijit’s privacy policy and it’s pretty much what I expected; they’ll guard any personal information carefully, but reserve the right to do what they want with anonymous information on usage patterns. They’ve also pledged to stick to the Attention Trust’s standards for that usage data.

Barney is organizing a publishers union of bloggers, and he seems not so much concerned about privacy as he is about who’s profiting from the data. I’m biased since I’m a developer building tools to do interesting things with implicit data, but I assumed the trade I’m making when I install a widget is that the developers will get some value from the statistics, and I’ll get some extra functionality for my blog. Since they’re not putting ads in their content, the only other revenue stream I can see is aggregating my data with lots of other peoples, generating useful information and selling it on. This doesn’t hurt me, I’m not losing anything, so it feels like a win-win situation.

Josh Kopelman captured this idea in Converting data exhaust into data value. There’s a lot of ‘wasted’ data flying around the web that nobody’s doing anything with, it seems like progress to capture some of it and turn it into insights. The trouble is I would say that. I’m a wide-eyed optimist who’s excited about the positive possibilities. Barney represents a strand of thinking that we’re not really running into yet, because no implicit data gathering service has a high enough profile to register with the public at large. I’d expect there will be more people asking questions as we get more successful and better known.

So far most of the bad publicity in this area has come when people feel their privacy has been violated, as with Facebook’s Beacon program, but the ownership question hasn’t really come up. After all we expect big companies like Google and Amazon to make use of their usage statistics to do things like offer recommendations, why should an external service be more controversial? I’m not sure it will turn out to be an issue, but the Beacon controversy shows we need to have an answer ready on who we think owns that information, and explain the bargain that people are making when they use our services.

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