Monetizing privacy – How much does Facebook owe you?

FBowesmeBy Peter Olsthoorn

The poorest people in the world achieve hardly any physical privacy. They can’t afford it. A billion people enjoy Facebook because it’s free. Which parallel can we draw?

Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights learns us: ‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.’

Sounds nice, but does it make any sense? Not more sense than the other Declaration articles in our societal system where money rules. If you’re poor the most basic physical privacy, a toilet and a hidden place for sex, are hard to achieve. Paradoxically, at the top income level, privacy is sometimes even harder to get. Privacy payment for fame is even already a fixed principle of European jurisprudence. Privacy shows many paradoxes, for example the ability to change from nearly full privacy to a complete transparent life, without much harm.

Life consists of transactions, many of which are illusionary. In the virtual world, it’s only worse. Everything on the internet falls into our lap free of charge, simply for our own pleasure. Companies happily go along with this image of altruism. Not to begrudge anyone such illusions; they simplify life immensely, but the bare reality is that hardly anything in life is free once even fresh air becomes scarce.

After money, attention is the most important currency. The internet flourishes through a lively, incessant and ruthless bartering for attention: from considering whether an e-mail will receive a reply of 20 characters or 20 paragraphs, to whether to ‘unfriend’ contacts on social networks, and so on.

Using personal data as internet currency means that privacy gets concrete, and above all, deliberate value in commercial traffic. You could assign that value yourself. In this kind of model, companies receive permission to collect/use personal data in exchange for certain services for a limited time. The individual would then manage his or her own privacy purse.

This means that you would manage your own personal data, with the potential option of transferring that management to a trusted party. The argument that hundreds of millions of people give away their personal data on social networks with absolutely no interest in the commercial value of that information does not make sense. It is simply the case that they don’t have the slightest idea.

I proposed this in 2010 in ‘The Price We Pay For Google’, and Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad picked it up as an interesting idea in 2012 when I repeated it in the Dutch edition of The Power of Facebook. Now the English edition is here, but maybe more important is a little scan I developed with two (don’t scare) marketing companies, Achtung! and Ehio Media. They urged for a very simple #facebookowesme. After Belgian and Dutch newspaper websites wrote about this, thousands of people did the scan. We hope for the viral effect of millions.

I know it’s a too simple concept. But it’s just the first step to take, making people conscious of the commercial value of personal data. Further steps in this direction are taken by, for example, Sarah Spiekermann, with her very interesting research on experienced Facebook value published in 2012, Privacy Property and Personal Information Markets. Her hypothesis: ‘Even if privacy is an inalienable human right it would be good if people were enabled to manage their personal data as private property.’

Because it’s not only about ‘monetizing’. The earth is, happily, not as flat. But materializing privacy might help us to overcome the huge problems with innocence about privacy of internet users. I look forward to the discussion with Geert Lovink and the Unlike Us audience in Amsterdam on Friday, March 22nd.