The Ownership Metaphor Can Be Misleading In Privacy Debates

from the bad-habits dept

Last week we had a bit of back-and-forth between Julian and Tom over the Scoble/Facebook controversy. I pretty much agree with Tom that it's a good idea to just assume that anything you put online may leak out and become public knowledge, and so I have trouble getting offended about Scoble's actions. Ed Felten makes the excellent point that people have an unfortunate tendency to lapse into talk about ownership when discussing privacy issues, despite the fact that the property rights metaphor doesn't work very well here. As Felten points out, both Scoble and Facebook (not to mention Scoble's Facebook friends) have various interests in the data, but neither of them really "owns" it. Certainly, there's no legal ownership rights: copyright, patent, and trade secret law are all inapplicable. And as Tom pointed out last week, neither Facebook nor Scoble have a practical ability to limit the other's use of the information once it's been put on the site. This is an issue that comes up over and over again in technology debates: people are so used to thinking about physical objects, which usually need owners, that they tend to assume information needs an owner too. But unlike physical objects, information is infinitely sharable. Mike has written at length about the opportunities that become apparent when you stop thinking about content in terms of scarcity and ownership. Similarly, privacy debates would probably be clearer if people stopped trying to identify "the" owner of a given piece of data and stopped trying to do the impossible by making information un-copyable. Instead, people should assume that any information they give out might become widely available, and educate users about ways to limit information disclosures so that the inevitable data leaks won't be catastrophic. Debating (or passing laws about) who "owns" a given piece of data will only cloud our thinking and give users a false sense of security.

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Comments on “The Ownership Metaphor Can Be Misleading In Privacy Debates”

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David Canton (user link) says:

privacy and ownership

I agree that “ownership” is not the right legal approach to privacy in general, or to the analysis of privacy issues. I find however that people grasp the basic issues of control and consent over the use of one’s personal information better if they think of it in terms of ownership. I often use the metaphor when explaining privacy issues – but am always careful to stress that its just that- and not a proper legal approach to theh issues.

Crosbie Fitch (profile) says:

Onwership applies to IP in the private domain

It is copyright that has confused people concerning IP ownership.

Everyone owns the IP in their private domain, whether they created it or not.

Unless they have contracted otherwise, people do not own or control the IP in anyone else’s domain, nor (ignoring copyright) the IP that has been legitimately published (placed into the public domain).

If you use a service that promises to provide privacy to the user (and the communications the user may have with others) then the service provider has no right to the user’s IP (irrespective of whether that IP is available elsewhere).

It is the monopolies of copyright and patent that confuse people into believing that they can give their IP to someone and yet have a fundamental right to control everyone’s use of that IP forever after.

Abolish copyright and patent, then intellectual property will behave naturally.

Simon Cast (profile) says:

Objects or Flow?

The latest New Scientist has an interesting article on language and framing of problems particularly in Physics. The point of the article is that given that English is a language of objects and Quantum physics is more about flow, then it is possible the slowness in the development of quantum mechanics is due to the poor framing of problems by English.

Now following that reasoning one of the issues remains a language of objects really trying to describe something that is about flow (of which objects exist in). It would be interesting to approach the issuing using language of flow (say fluid dynamics comes to mind) as opposed to objects.

Crosbie Fitch (profile) says:

Information and communication

I agree Simon, one must recognise the flow of information (communication of IP) as well as its static representation (IP).

Static IP exists in the private domain (someone has it) or the public domain (accessible to all), or both.

Communication of IP represents the temporary connection or intersection of domains. IP communicated under contract remains within a bubble of the provider’s private domain within the private domain of the recipient. IP supplied without contract leaves one domain to enter another (temporarily connected). IP that is broadcast leaves a private domain to enter the public domain (whether ephemerally or permanently). NB That IP ‘leaves’ does not prevent copies of IP remaining.

Thus communications may still be private, and the information within the communication may remain private property of those party to the communication.

Nick (profile) says:

When someone like Scoble says he “owns” data, he says that because he used his personal brand and time to aggregate his contacts. Despite what Facebook’s policies may be, he feels he is entitled to do what he wishes with this compilation of this data. It is arguable as to weather the user’s data he has collected have agreed to his harvesting of data. Such users should opt to no allow full profile views (phone numbers and e-mail addresses).

Here is a parallel analogy. If I have a SIM card in a phone, I take the card out, put it in my new phone (flow). My phone book comes with it. I did not need to get permission from the phone manufacturer or all of the people who’s phone numbers I have stored on the card. I own the card; so I own the collection of data.

Now let’s move the analogy to large data aggregator/resellers such as research companies, mailing lists, etc. I bet they think that they “own” their collection of data. They own it in the sense that they would like to control the use of the data as a collection since they invested in its aggregation.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

Privacy = Ownership

I think “ownership” is the right concept to apply to private data. Sure, data may be infinitely sharable, but this is data that should not be. You should have a right to control who has access to your personal information, and what they do with it.

This is quite a separate issue from copyrighted material that you may create for distribution to others. Copyright (both in the freedoms and restrictions it implies) should apply only to material you make public, not to details about your life as a private citizen.

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