Information Ownership in an Information Economy: A sideways look

I’m a gregarious person: I tend to know a lot of people, and I tend to have the contact cellphone numbers for many of them. Every now and then, as a result, I get a request from Friend A, asking me for the contact numbers for Friend B. What do I do?

The first thing I try and figure out, the first gate I put the request through, is a “trusted domain” one. Do I personally know that A and B are themselves friends? If this is the case, then, most of the time, I will pass the information on. The exception is when I know that B has a different preference, explicitly shared with me, saying “Do not, under any circumstances, give my number out to others. Period.

If I am not aware of A and B themselves being friends, I do not give the information out. I offer to get in touch with B and to pass A’s contact details to her.

Wasn’t life easier when we had telephone directories and listed/unlisted numbers? Perhaps. Because now we still have the directories, but they’re personal. We still have the unlisted numbers, but they’re personally protected.

I am responsible for the contact information I hold. I am accountable for that information. Accountable to friends who have trusted me with that information. And if I pass that information on without their implicit or, in some cases, explicit, permission, I am breaking their trust in me.

This, to me, is issue number one to do with any debate on information “ownership”.


And it’s a biggie.

When I hold information that has been given to me by someone, and where that information is “privately” held by that someone, then I am given it within a trust relationship. It is not mine to do with as I please.

That’s the simple part, when I am dealing with information as a steward, when “ownership” is clear. So let’s try a case where there is no such clear ownership. Let’s take, as an example, the record of my purchases at Amazon. Now I would argue that it is my information, and that Amazon should let me move that information around as I please. In fact, this sort of thing is one of the premises of VRM, a project you should all get to know, a project you should all get involved in.

So where was I? Oh yes, Amazon. Wanting to move “my” information around. Wanting to share information to do with Amazon purchases with others. Others like Barnes and Noble and Abebooks and Borders. As you can imagine, Amazon aren’t likely to be greatly enamoured of this idea. But it will happen. In the same way as cellphone numbers became portable across networks, in the same way as avatars are becoming portable across virtual worlds, in the same way as Sony joined the crowd and said “No DRM” today. Information portability is no longer an “if”, it’s a “when”.

But hang on a second, I hear you say. Surely that’s unfair on poor Amazon. After all, they’ve spent real money building all this infrastructure and developing all this software to track you and your purchases. How is it fair on them? Surely it’s reasonable for them to insist that the information, information they invested time and money to create, that information cannot go to their competitors?


It’s not their information. Whatever the ToS says. It’s only a matter of time before that wall comes crumbling down.

So what’s going to happen next? I guess that “vendors” that act as information stewards will go one of three ways:

  • Privacy Premium: This is where the ToS agrees that it’s your information, but indicates that you have to pay a small fee for private use. They don’t claim any right to sell on the information, but ask for costs to be met when they have to package it for your (external) use. They still have complete internal rights for using the information they hold to “sell” to you, to “cross-sell” you, to “target” you, and do all sorts of weird and nasty things to you. But that’s normal.
  • Advertising Allowance: Here they won’t charge you for “your” information, provided you don’t mind receiving it in a corrupted form: the primary form is where you get the information for free, but it’s embedded with advertising; the secondary form is where you get the information clean, but they’ve got your permission to sell your details to others.
  • Service With A Smile: It’s yours to do with it what you want, completely liquid. But there’s a transaction fee any time you want to do something with the information.

All that’s fine, I hear you say, but that’s information shared between vendor and vendee. Caveat emptor. What about the cases where it’s even more complex to work out ownership? Like Friend Wheels? Where someone spends time and money creating relationship diagrams and graphical representations of all the people you know and they know and they know and and and? Who owns that?

There’s a lot for us to work out, for sure. We’re still in early days as far as information ownership is concerned, but the direction is clear.

Information is going to be like money. And we’re going to move it around like money. [We already are.] Institutions that hold information are going to be like banks. With a variety of services, and with rights and duties associated with our information, varying according to the service we sign up for.

  • Safety deposit boxes for information. They hold it, they can’t touch it, we pay a fee.
  • Current or checking accounts for information: They have limited rights to doing stuff with the information, and in exchange they pay us peanuts for it; but they don’t charge us for moving the information around.
  • Information deposit accounts: Here they pay us a lot of “interest” for the information they hold on our behalf, but we don’t have the freedom to move it around willy-nilly without penalty; there are also transaction fees.
  • Managed investments: Here they are able to give us even higher rates of “interest”; they not only pay us for the information they hold on our behalf, but beyond that, they also create new things as a result of “investing” that information, and share some element of the proceeds with us.

And guess what? In order to do all this, we’re going to have to solve two other things. Identity. Trust. Both of these are problems we have already sought to solve before. In the banking world.

Banking is about information. Markets are digital.

28 thoughts on “Information Ownership in an Information Economy: A sideways look”

  1. JP…we did some work for you guys on this overall area about 2 years ago…may be worth digging it out.

    The overall issue with info ownership will, I think, revolve around who owns 3rd party data in a social network – to take a current example, if Robert Scoble scrapes his Facebook friends’ data to put on his net on Plaxo but you don’t want to join Plaxo in any way, is he within his rights or not?

    On the subject of your A and B above, I have similar qualms with Linked In requests.

  2. Thats a very good expression of how to treat personal data and metadata. I was sort of wondering what a sub prime mortgage maps to.

    I like the language here too – repsect and value for information as if its money. This should help a few start ups with their business models.

    As I’ve already said on whatfettle, while we thrash with trust and identity issues, Barclays give out one time password generators to their internet account holders. Just a warning that things are not going our way.

  3. (where “we” == people working with the web)

    On the security side, clearly not enough. OpenId not an option, Cardspace somewhat misunderstood. Trust not really approached. Federated identity still feels like the Wild West.

    On the services side, many banks are playing or have played with the sms request/response thing to let people at least see their own balance. But none of the original questions posed a few years back have been answered.

    On the social side Zopa have come at things from the right way, a middle man to match lenders with borrowers. Though oddly they put you through an assault course.

    Micro payments – oh dear. Wikipedias article summarizes things well.

    Otherwise, are we turning the heads of the banking world? You tell us.

  4. Interesting topic. I don’t like the money analogy. Information a good like any other. It just so happens that many goods are physical today but that is becoming less true over time. We created money to have a STANDARDIZED method for exchanging goods with each other. I think it unlikely we return to a form of barter in the information world.

  5. Instead of going down the path of information being ‘like’ money, which is paved with Hard Questions, why not create currencies in which information capital can be held. For example I might have a Facebucks account with Facebook, in which I accumulate Facebucks for information I provide to Facebook. Other information based services, eg Bebo, could have their own currencies e.g. Bebobeans. Information may be transacted between providers by transacting in their currencies. Now apply economics:

    * Each service provider controls the liquidity of money supply (M1, M2, …).
    * Exchange rates exist between these virtual currencies.
    * Rates are floating; supply and demand applies.
    * Rates are public and can be converted into first life currencies.
    * Gifts are possible – it is not a requirement that every information transaction involves a currency transaction. For example OpenSocial transactions may all occur as free swaps.

    Note that in the above, the investment assets that you listed e.g. information bank accounts, are possible.

  6. Alexis, my fear is that every “currency” in your definition is a “walled garden” in mine. I need more than exchange rates, I need real liquidity.

    Maybe I should have said information is like water. Let me try that and see if it works.

  7. alexis, you have just built another wall – even if you have made a few peep holes. And some countries still stop you taking their currency out.

  8. Hey wait a minute, why apply scarcity metaphors on to something inherently abundant and exponentially growing/exploding?

    Even water is scarce(at Chennai – where I come from).

    Inanimate world is wrong place to hunt for metaphor. Life forms, biological is one place to start looking.

    BTW, Why apply metaphor at all? It is a new kind of beast. Why not treat it that way?
    -Balaji S.

  9. Balaji, one answer to your question might be: because people who place value on their information may wish to increase the costs (explicitly, or via implicit externalities eg ‘granting trust’) of accessing it. One implication of some ways of doing this is that it makes the information scarce. But, making an identical copy of small amounts of information is zero cost. Hence a problem arises…

  10. Indeed.

    Important to note that it’s through accountable, standard uses of money that those services are made possible.

    Compared to information, we need applications in which we can invest that data, and standard ways to trace and control it. Looks like we’re a bit far away.

    Also, money comes from Central Banks, with interests. Where does personal data come from? This analogy sounds sick and I don’t like it, although I’m sure we can run deep into it.

    Now it’s about taking my culture and humanity away huh? Count me in the debate.

  11. Feelings run high because the debate is about culture and value. Creating value online, even if it is stored only as (non-physical) information, is about capital: human, social, financial, …

    Money is information, and information can be money. Cash flows…

    For example, check out this fascinating article about a bank heist in Second Life.

    “Second Life is an online virtual world. Recently, its virtual banks experienced a series of virtual bank heists, which netted the thieves/hackers a reported $3.2 million in Linden dollars … approximately US $11,500 …

    The heist leads to an interesting legal question … Can a crime committed within a virtual reality game also be a crime in the real world? In particular, can a theft of virtual currency count as a real-world robbery?

    Since virtual property still has monetary value, I believe the answer should, in theory, be yes, but an examination of real-world laws is necessary. I will also discuss whether virtual banks have any duty towards their depositors, in terms of providing security or other protections for their cyber-currency.”


    See also, for another story:

    (Hat tip to Charles Stross for the links)

  12. Indeed the MMORPG situation is interesting.

    To balance a game, developers place experience barriers or high in-game costs to certain special objects. But as has been the case for sometime now, many of these digital objects can be bought out of game from ebay. In short, players who wish to improve their in-game status will pay real money for digital objects that should only have value in-game.

    Whats interesting is that while some MMORPGs accept this behaviour, others work to hard to stop it. I accept Alexis point that these items can be thought of as information.

    Perhaps my Facebook profile could be worth more than my OpenId attributes, even if they are essentially the saem.

  13. JP (and the rest of the group),

    My thoughts on this.

    Why not create some sort of corporative type of “bank”? Like what farmers used to do in the old days?
    Nobody wants to deposit its “money” at Google or MS. But if they can do it in their “own” bank, why not. They trust themselves much better then anybody else. And then you could see maybe some transfer from one corporative bank (=community) to one other corporative bank.
    I have not fully thought through this idea, but it could make sense if you compare the net to the wild west a “couple” of years ago.

    Does the idea “hold”?



  14. @Bart yes this is an interesting idea which has been around, in one form or another, for some time. It’s closely related to the (still open) problems of electronic currency and decentralized trust.

    People may not (yet) be happy to hold money at Google and Microsoft but they are happy to hold it at eBay in Paypal dollars, and at airlines in air miles. Also, if information is money, then some people are richer than they realise ;-)

  15. The title may be ‘ownership’, but the dialogue is about ‘accountability’ (or should that be responsibility). Ed Felton approaches the same issue from the persective of ‘rights’ (, but I feel that his road ends at the same place as JP’s – with questions of trust.

    Banks (or at least models based on banking) do I feel have something to contribute to the debate here, because their business is trust. Telcos also have something to contribute here since trust is an invisible foundation of their business model.

    Balaji is right however that we should be cautious in using scarcity economics models in this land of plenty. The concept of currency is I feel too closely coupled to the concept of ownership, and haven’t we already established that this debate isn’t actually about ownership but about the complexities of transitive trust and federation?

    If we are going to borrow from banking then I think we need to examine the social aspects of how they create and build on trust anchors rather than how they facilitate capital management.

  16. One of the comments to Ed’s posting brought me back to the concept of a Limited Liability Persona (LLP). I think this is an approach that rather than engaging with the complexities of managing the issue at hand, instead seeks to minime the damage surface area that we encounter if we assume that the trust issues remain as unsolved as they are today. It cures the symptoms rather than the disease.

    Another hat tip to Charles Stross as I think he explored this approach in Accelerando some time before anybody came along and slapped the LLP label on it.

  17. Really good thinking. However, after reading this post by Mark Earls about how the language you use affects your thinking:

    …I started thinking how much of the analogy “Information is going to be like money” comes from your background from banking industry? As an outsider, I see more differences than similarities between money and info. As an obvious example, if you give somebody money, you lose it; but if you give somebody information (either for limited use or full use), you can still keep it. Especially for info that is in your head (not in some database), it’s very difficult to get rid of it perdectly.

    I believe information can’t be “owned”. This is just language limiting our thinking. The most you can hope to do, I think, is to manage the access to it in a responsible way. Just like the way you started this post – please continue this thread of thought from there! (I think you are onto something big here)

Let me know what you think

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