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.

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