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.