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.

Musing about Digital McCarthyism and Digital Nonviolence

While researching aspects of the lives of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, I was reminded of the works of Richard B Gregg. While I had come across Gregg while reading Economics, I hadn’t appreciated quite how influential he’d been on King, or for that matter just how dedicated he’d been in seeking to understand Gandhi. If you don’t know about Gregg, do take a look at his Wikipedia entry.

I’m currently reading a 1938 Gregg pamphlet titled What is The Matter With Money? It’s a reprint from the Modern Review for May and June 1938. In it, Gregg spends a lot of time looking at trust, and some of the things he says jell with me.
I quote from Gregg:

…A money economy makes security depend on individual selfish acquisitiveness instead of on trust. Trust grows when men serve first and foremost the community and the common purpose. There has sometimes been an element of service and community purpose in the making of private fortunes, but it has not often been predominant. Money splits up community security and plays upon men’s fears, — fears of the future and of each other’s motives, fears that compel them to compete with one another to a harmful degree.

Gregg concludes the paragraph with an interesting assertion:

Money has worked on us so long that it is now hampering the further development of science, art and technology.

At reboot last year I spoke about the things that had to die before we can regain some of the things we’ve lost, in keeping with the conference theme of renaissance and rebirth. [Hey Thomas, what’s happening with reboot this year?]
Gregg’s words have served to remind me that concepts like identity and trust are fundamental parts of community and not individuality; culture too is a community concept, be it about arts or sciences or even forms of expression; community itself is a construct of relationships at multiple levels. Maybe the reason why much of what is now termed IPR (and its cater-cousin DRM) is abhorrent to me is that these things focus on the individual and not the community.

I am all for making sure that creativity is rewarded, in fact I believe that any form of real value generation should be rewarded; but not at the price of stifling the growth of culture and of community. This, I believe, is at the heart of what Larry Lessig speaks of, what Rishab Aiyer Ghosh speaks of, what Jerry Garcia believed in, what opensource communities believe in, what democratised innovation is about.

Culture and community before cash.

I recently bought a book by Gregg called The Power Of Nonviolence. When describing the book, the bookseller noted that it [the particular copy I was buying] was signed by Gregg; unusually, the recipient’s name had been erased and carefully at that; the bookseller surmised that it may have had to do with fears about McCarthyism.

You know something? At the rate we’re going, the battles about IPR and DRM are going to get uglier, to a point where we’re going to see something none of us wants. Digital McCarthyism. What we’re seeing in the software and music and film spaces already begins to feel like that.

We need to find a better way to work it out. And it makes me wonder. What’s the digital equivalent of Gandhian Nonviolence?

Four Pillars: The Power of Context

checkershadow illusionHave you ever seen Adelson’s Illusion?

The squares marked A and B are the same shade of grey.

I won’t spoil it for you by giving you the proof here. Instead, why don’t you go visit the original site and see for yourself? There are a number of really worthwhile illusions there. I first saw it maybe ten years ago. Like you, I’ve seen many such illusions in my time, but none of them has had the same impact as this one had. Some of you may not have seen it, so I thought I’d share it with you while musing about context.

I think context is the key differentiator for Web 2.0; whether you look at it from the viewpoint of Four Pillars: Publishing, Search, Fulfilment and Conversation, whether you’re one of those people really into the Semantic Web, whether you’re more of a Mashups person using GPS or other location-sensitive tools, whether you’re into deep dialogues and arguments about microformats or identity… it’s all about context.

Hold that thought for a minute and come for a tangential wander.

In the past, I’ve had my rants about e-mail, about spreadsheets and about presentation tools. Like with most other things, these have good uses and bad uses. For some reason, the bad uses seemed to proliferate. I like working with you so much that I’m going to copy your boss in to this conversation. I like working with you so much that I’m going to copy your boss in to this conversation and not tell you I’m doing it. I like spreadsheets and presentations so much I insist on reading them on my BlackBerry. I trust everyone so much that I’m going to keep online and offline copies of every version of every spreadsheet and presentation I’ve ever come near. I like you so much I’m going to show you a draft of something and then use something completely different at the meeting a day later. Recognise any of these?

Enterprise collaboration tools are by themselves fairly useless unless people actually want to collaborate, unless people want to share, unless people want to work together. E-mail and spreadsheets and presentation tools are by themselves not evil, but can be subverted into bad uses.

For many years I wondered why people did this, why people misused the tools. And I’ve only been able to come up with one logical explanation, one that fits with my belief that people are intrinsically good. You see, many of these tools came out during the 1970s and 1980s; during that time, many of the basic tenets of enterprise employment were being turned upside down; security of tenure went flying through the window; downsizing and rightsizing and wrongsizing were all the vogue; outsourcing and offshoring were being discovered; the war for talent had not yet begun.

Now the primary and secondary sectors had already been through all this, but not the tertiary sector. And within the tertiary sector, the term “knowledge worker” was just beginning to emerge. Maybe, just maybe, it was all a question of timing. Insecure people were learning that knowledge had power, while being presented with tools to protect, fortify, even submerge, that knowledge. Are they to be blamed for using the tools selfishly?

Okay, back to the context argument. Tools like e-mail and spreadsheets and presentations, because they were so individual and stand-alone, could be manipulated. And could be misinterpreted.

They did not come with context.

What we are seeing with Four Pillars tools, with Web 2.0 tools in general, is the very opposite:

  • The way that conversations persist allows context to be captured and shared, whether in IM or wikis or blogs
  • Modern tools for archival and retrieval, via the use of tags and non-hierarchical processes, allows context to be enriched
  • The availability of location specific information, of tags and microformats, of semantic web concepts, all coupled with better identity and authentication and permissioning, allows the enriched context to be made more relevant and timely

Context. Captured and shareable. Enriched and made available. At the right time, in the right place, to the right person.

I wish it were all that simple. Whenever I see the sheer power of the tools today, I also see the stupidities. Stupidities in the context of DRM and IPR and The Series Of Tubes and and and, which have the capacity to kill this goose before any golden eggs are laid.

Musing lazily about identity

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Who you are is a function of:

  • what you stand for
  • what you belong to (both blood as well as thunder)
  • what you like (and what you dislike)
  • what you’ve done (and what you’d like to do)

Sure there are many other things. Ways to contact you. The size of your wallet. All kinds of things that other people use to “define” you: your age, gender, marital status, number of dependents, address.

Interestingly, these mattered when “socio-economic groupings” meant something, when “marketing” could predict your propensity to buy something based on all the boxes they put you into. [If you’re interested in hearing a worthwhile rant on this subject, try and spend some time with Professor Richard Scase, “Futurescase” as he gets called. I’ve relished the privilege.]

Today, the marketers are in trouble. Socio-economic groupings mean jack when it comes to predicting purchase propensity. Long tails weave their equalising ways across class and gender and hirsuteness, or lack of.

In the meantime, everyone else (bar the marketers) is into biometrics. And maybe that’s acceptable. Was a shibboleth an early form of biometric identification? Well, at least the shibboleth identified someone as a member of a group (or not, as the case may be). You see, one of the problems we face with modern definitions of privacy and confidentiality is deeply connected to this need for a protected need for individuality.

No man is an iland.

We are going to have villages and towns and cities where the computing device is communal. Where that communal device uses opensource software and open standards and open platforms and open open open.

And we’re going to have to work out what identity means there. Not identity from a narrow financial-transaction point of view. But identity in the context of sharing information. Digital information. Letters. Photographs. Films. Music. Books. Whatever.

Communal devices. Communal devices that work when the local power grid goes down. Communal devices that don’t go obsolescent in 18 months. Communal devices that do their bit about global warming.

Communal devices.

Hey, let’s be careful out there. This is why I am so concerned about the garbage that gets one in the name of DRM and IPR. Have you really tried to use a “family” PC after Windows 95? One that three or four people use regularly, who are happy to share their files. If only they could.

An aside, still about identity. When I look at startups, one of the things that I check out very carefully is how the core team got together. Did they grow up in the same neighbourhood? Hang out in the same places? Know the same people? Go to the same university?

I’ve always felt this is important. Unless the core has some independent grounding, some reason to be together, they’re going to come apart when trouble comes their way. And every startup will hit trouble sometime in the early years.

In similar vein, I tend to check out what makes a group come together. Take America. The folk rock band, I mean, the ones who gave us Don’t Cross The River and Ventura Highway. [And Horse With No Name and Sandman, but those are not my favourites…].

Do you know how they got together? They were all sons of US GIs stationed west of London, in Ruislip, Middlesex. Their mothers were all British. They attended the same school. They broke up before they really got started, in 1969. And then came together in time to savour their success.

Just goes to show.

Four Pillars: Identity: Please flame this post

There continues to be movement in the microformats meets identity space. Doc Searls’s IT Garage recently had a piece on MicroID; comments and conversations took me to Claimid as well; so the space which I always associate with Subterranean Homesick Hardt is beginning to get busier.

As with search and with syndication, we can get as technical about it as we want, and there are many places you can go to for the technical bits. Not here, I’m afraid. I still want to get through some first-principle thoughts, get some things clear in my head. Part of why I blog is to articulate nascent thoughts and opensource them in order to improve them.
Apologies if all this sounds like going over someone else’s well-trodden ground; it is exactly that; but I have found that many of these debates founder on semantics and terminology and definitions, and as a result I prefer a first-things-first approach. Please feel free to criticise or trash it. [In fact I would expect this post to attract more flames than any other I’ve done -) ]
The identity debate seems to encompass many disparate things, either directly or indirectly, so I’m going to just list them to begin with:

  • Ecce Homo: A means of identifying who I am, with some other relatively static data, eminently suitable for “microformat” treatment, and probably needing to be combined with some other way of confirming who I am, “two-factor authentication”. Like having a card and a PIN or signature. This is as permanent as can be, a metaphorical passport or fingerprint or iris pattern or whatever. This probably includes all the numerical tags I collect like frequent flyer and affinity memberships. It can include my credit cards and accounts. It is the same regardless of the specific relational or transactional conversation I happen to be in. My gut feel is that each person should have only one of these, and that it should be “small but perfectly formed”. And that it has to exist and be verifiable in a dotorg state.
  • Letters of Intent: A means of letting people know about my intentions, what I’m interested in or looking for. I make known my preferences and interests. Some of them are temporary, some of them are permanent. I choose who I want to tell. As in Doc looking for rental cars. As in my signalling to individuals in my social network that I will be within n miles of where they are at a given time. My information. Signalled to whom I want to. When and where I want to. Giving the listener an opportunity to converse with me and relate to me. Even things like are variants of this.
  • Tell them Phil sent ya: A way of associating other people’s perceptions of me with me, both qualitative as well as quantitative. This is trust that I can acquire but not control. Ratings I have, whether credit or eBay or college scores or whatever. Variable over time. Not suppressible by me. But challengeable by me, so that dispute or contention can be flagged. I may have many such ratings, used for different purposes, but inspectable at the behest of the requestor. And changed as a result of the conversation.
  • Trust me, I’m a doctor: A way of telling other people my own perception of me. Kitemarking my sites and blogs and articles and photos and quotes and whatever. Here what I am doing is endorsing stuff in the public domain about me, indicating (a) this came from me or (b) even though it does not come from me, I nevertheless approve it, I endorse it. This is like a great seal, a way of stamping that something is Orl Korrect. Or that Kilroy was Here.
  • My name is Bond, James Bond: A licence to do something. Granted by someone else. Usually not transferable. Usually not permanent either.
  • Come up and see my etchings: My choosing to expose things I have done, expired and executed letters of intent. Pictures of my activity with others. Kiss-and-tell. My information. My choice as to whom I share it with. And I can make this choice single-use or temporary or permanent. Probably even includes financial transactions and medical history.

These things by themselves are not complicated. They become complicated when people try to lock you in, to their walled gardens, their products, their platforms, their parlours. Everything here is a key to something.

And the tendency of the walled-gardeners is to force these keys to behave as if they were physical. And we need to move into the 21st century and push back. Hard. Like we had to push back on being able to choose our PINs and change them. Like we had to push back on being able to keep our phone numbers regardless of carrier or provider. Can you imagine a mail provider telling you that you couldn’t redirect mail either from or to the mail account they provide to you?

And intuitively (I may be completely wrong here) I think that the trick is to keep each of these pieces small and loosely joined a la Weinberger meets Hardt meets Sifry while Searls referees. As soon as we try to architect a humongous reference model we lose, because it’s a bit like industry standards bodies. Before you know it they get packed with people who have different agendas and the time and energy to deflect you ad infinitum and ad nauseum.

I’m also hunching that we need to prevent anyone owning this. That this whole space has to be opensource. Otherwise it will become a corrupt core.

Everything we believe is possible in terms of collaboration and co-creation and innovation at the edge, everything in my four pillars,  needs this problem to be solved.