Why I don’t believe in the personal data economy

May 1st, 2012

I care a lot about personal data (especially mine), and yep, my and everybody else’s personal data are all over the place. They are all over the place because they are valuable. They are all over the place because I (and you) don’t have much control over the way they are being collected, exchanged and exploited.

Now, what I conclude from that is that we need more control (and, of course, I would not pretend that I’m the only one thinking that, but that’s not the point). Apparently, what other people would conclude from that is that you should be selling your personal data. That there is such an idea of a “personal data economy” where instead of giving it away, you can decide of a price for your personal data. This is frequently being promoted as the latest, new, brilliant idea on the Web, most recently from HP Labs: “A Stock Exchange for Your Personal Data”.

Why didn’t we think about that before?

Well, quite simply because we did. Numerous times. And it did not work.

Have you heard of things like the Attention Recorder, from the Attention Trust, that was going to make the attention economy the big thing of… hurmm… 2007? Well, me neither.

Why I do not believe in this thing is quite simply because I don’t understand how it could work. It sounds really naive, mostly for three reasons:

  1. The fact that my personal data are valuable does not mean I want to sell them. Apparently, my organs are valuable. There is a market with people who would be more than happy to harvest them and get some benefits from that. To me, they are just essential. They don’t have value from an economic perspective. They have value because I can’t exist and function without them. In other terms, it is not because it has market value that it is a commercialisable personal asset. You would have to be seriously naive to think that it is the case, and come up with very convincing evidence to convince me that this is the way things work.
  2. Putting a price on it does not prevent from getting it for free. That’s one part I really never understand. Personal data is being collected from us, and this is actually necessary for quite a few things to function. If this is the case, why exactly would anybody want to pay for it? You can argue that this is exactly the point: they should not have access to it for free. But how is it that this is going to change? This is not a trick question: I truly don’t understand this!
  3. Wouldn’t it actually kill the personal data economy? Taking the risk to appear as contradicting myself, I would argue that this personal data economy exists already, but not in the form it is envisaged in this “personal data stock-market” trend. We register to online services, allow them somehow to collect data from us, in exchange for what they have to offer. Personal data are not the product, they are the currency! We buy stuff on the Web with our personal data, and actually most of us are reasonably happy about most of what we get out of the deal. We could stretch this metaphor further, and talk about “personal data banks” (some do) and “personal data currency exchange”. But the real point here is that changing the current “market” to a model where personal data is a product being sold would change the balance of this economy: personal data stop having the quality of a currency — i.e. having the same value for everybody. Now, here is the trick: if personal data stop having the same value for everybody, they start being biased; And if they start being biased, they stop having value to the people who exploit them.

Now of course, I probably misunderstood something somehow, and maybe all these points have been addressed (in which case, when can I start making money to tell you how much I weight? — which reminds me I should stop telling things to my friends, just in case). Until that is confirmed through, I would rather work on being able to understand and control the way I spend my personal data online.