A Digital Bill of Rights By the People, For the People

This post was originally published under the same title on the Personal blog, A Personal Stand.

The Obama Administration unveiled today its long-awaited framework for online privacy, Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World. The result is a bold and thoughtful step in the right direction, and it will make an impact, regardless of whether Congress acts. It’s another sign that power on the Internet is shifting toward individuals and away from companies.

There’s still much more to do:

1.  In talking about reform and creating a new model, we must put individuals firmly at the center of the framework. This means giving them the tools to drive demand for their valuable data resources to transform the current model into a “user-centric” one. With individuals truly in control – and looking out on the world from their perspective – every other principle and right about privacy falls into place.

2.  While the framework will require companies to re-evaluate their data practices and conform to new standards, what about our government’s obligations in handling our data? The Obama Administration has been impressively forward-looking in this arena – particularly with veterans, education and health record data – but it seems that individuals care as much about what the government knows about them as they do about companies.  We need rules for government, too.

3.  Actual citizens need a seat at the table alongside the privacy advocates, law enforcement representatives, companies and academics that will help establish codes of conduct.  If the framework is being constructed for the benefit of individuals, don’t we deserve a say in the matter, too? Perhaps the final say?

To make the last point a reality, we’re taking matters into our own hands.  In a few weeks at SXSW in Austin, Texas, I will join my friend, Anne Bezancon, founder and CEO of Placecast to create – with other SXSW attendees – a Bill of Rights “by the people, for the people” that we would expect both companies and the government to respect. If you will be attending the conference, please join us for our interactive Sunday afternoon session, We the People: Creating a Consumer’s Bill of Rights. Please also check out the session by our CTO, Tarik Kurspahic, on building a “privacy by design” company.

Seeing the Forrester for the Trees

This post was originally published under the same title on the Personal blog, A Personal Stand.

As recently as a year ago, many of my colleagues and friends told me they just didn’t understand what Personal was trying to do. What did it mean to own and control your data? Why was data even important to a person? Why would companies, particularly marketers, ever embrace transparency and empowering individuals with their data when exploiting that data is at the core of their business model?Forrester logo

What a difference a year makes.

Amid the many positive developments and increasing coverage of this issue, such as The Wall Street Journal’s courageous “What They Know” series, comes the excellent new Forrester Research report Personal Identity Management by Fatemeh Khatibloo, which was released this past Friday.

The report is not only a must read for those who want to understand the complex dynamics at play in this space, but it provides an accessible framework that will help companies prepare for the transformational empowerment of individuals that is already underway. Download the report.

You can also read Khatibloo’s blog on the report at Forbes.com.

A World Without Borders – Customer Data in Bankruptcy

Here is the link to my post in the Personal company blog on how customer data should be treated in bankruptcy: http://blog.personal.com/2011/09/a-world-without-borders-–-customer-data-in-bankruptcy

We don’t have this issue at Personal as individuals own their data from the start when using our data vault service (thus there would be no “customer data assets” for us to sell were the company to go out of business), but I expect it to become a bigger and bigger issue in the coming years.

The Data Wars Begin

In a week where President Obama and the White House announced their intention to enter the fray over consumer data and privacy, the most interesting recent news has actually been the rapid escalation between Google and Facebook over data ownership. Framing it in terms of a trade war, TechCrunch declared the beginning of true data protectionism, and has been highlighting the almost daily back and forth between the two biggest aggregators of consumer/Owner data in the world.

This fight over the right to export email and contact data from one service to the other is shining a bright light on the much larger and more important issue — how critically dependent they both are on owning and controlling your and my data. No matter their rhetoric, their actions cannot hide the fact that the they look at our data as theirs. Pretty hard to start a trade war if you don’t have some kind of good or service to withhold. In both cases, the only thing they have to hold hostage is our data. That’s it.

Most trade wars are bad for everyone involved. This one, however, might end up helping Owners. Unlike privacy, which has proven harder to understand and to motivate people, data ownership is far more tangible. Either you can do what you want with your data or you can’t. There is not much room for either of them to sit on the fence. If Google and Facebook continue to retaliate, which I’m betting they do, they will do more to show their true colors around data ownership than anything the White House or Wall Street Journal could do combined. Should be fun to watch.

S.

Early Concerns about Being Defined by Others (1992)

I would probably be too embarrassed to mention my graduation speech at the University of Michigan in May 1992 had it been a glorious success. As it were, gathering storm clouds over Michigan Stadium forced school officials to rearrange the program, pushing commencement speaker Carole Simpson of ABC News and other dignitaries in front of my speech. In addition to being the opening band trying to follow the main act, I was further thrown off when the wind blew off my my graduation cap as I was about to stand up, putting an exclamation point on the fact that we were all soon to get soaked. I rushed through the speech amid cat calls and growing restlessness. I remember my international affairs professor, Raymond Tanter, telling me later that I had a hard lesson in the fact that timing is everything. Yes indeed.

I only recently realized how much the speech suggested themes of Personal after digging it out of a box in my basement. I was outraged at the time that the label “Generation X” had been so successfully tagged to us by the media and others. At best, we were “materialistic and apathetic”, as I wrote; at worst, we had no name whatsoever. The speech was titled “On Defining a Generation”, and was a call to arms to my peers to take control of their identities and not let others define them individually or as a group. Here are a few excerpts that are eerily relevant to how I believe we are being represented by others who capture our data and define us by it, as well as the value of your intent data (your future behavior) vs. your historical data:

“…Until now, we have been shaped and defined by our parents, our schools, and the media. Today, it is our time to bring together where we have been with where we want to go, and in so doing, to define ourselves.

“…It is a dangerous thing to let others tell you who you are. No one can understand the complexities that make up the mind and soul of another individual. Such attempts to define a person usually fall short; they limit rather than capture essence…Do such attempts to simplify our diverse character affect us?

“…These diverse experiences are all part of our generation, and they show the impossibility of arriving at singular conclusions about our character. We should not attempt to stereotype ourselves, rather, we must reflect on these shared experiences and begin to understand and thoughtfully define our generation.

“…[I]dentity is not simply a composite of the past. We can be identified as much by where we are going as where we have been. This may be the more important task in this process, because it is the part over which you and I have control. What problems are we committed to solving? Are there goals and ideals that the majority of us share that give us distinction from other generations? Or maybe the discipline, will power, and most importantly, the tolerance, to accomplish our goals is what will set us apart.

“I encourage you to be active and thoughtful in defining our generation. Because if we do not define ourselves, experience has shown us that someone else will.”

I was obviously referring to the traditional “media” at the time, and not Google, Facebook or any of the data and technology-driven media companies of today who are defining us digitally by capturing all that we do on their sites and others. Little did I know that one of the co-founders of Google, Larry Page, was just behind me at Michigan and was soon to envision one of the greatest data collection and organization tools in human history, or that the quality of our lives would be increasingly shaped by our identities and reputations in the online world.

In his far happier commencement speech at Michigan in 2009 (as the main act, not the student warm up band), Page shared one of his favorite quotes, which I had not heard but really like: “Always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting.” Amen.

I think this would qualify by his definition: Help people understand how incredibly limiting and inefficient it is to be defined by companies using data they surreptitiously capture about us, and instead provide individuals with the understanding, tools, transparency and incentives to take control and do it themselves.

Getting Personal…With Your Data

Welcome to Getting Personal, my first public blog. I will share my views in their raw form around what I believe is a historical opportunity to empower individuals with one of the most precious new resources — their data. I’d like to invite you to add your voice in rich commentary, so please sign up to receive notifications whenever I post.

I’m passionate about building new technologies, business models and even social paradigms that are designed from the ground up to put the individual’s interests first when it comes to their data and their time (that other precious resource we don’t protect enough). If data, as companies exploiting it today are fond of saying, is the indeed the new oil, well it seems to me we are each sitting on top of our own massive, untapped reservoirs.

To help make some of these ideas a reality, I left Nokia subsidiary NAVTEQ with an entire team that has worked together for a decade in data, technology and media to start Personal, based in Washington, DC. We have been working for a year on what the Washington Business Journal recently called a “mystery personal service.”

We have not been trying to be mysterious on purpose — we just needed some time on our own to work through the multitude of technical and business model challenges required to bring our vision to life. We are, first and foremost, building a platform and a company for ourselves, our friends and our families to trust and use for the long term to own, organize and manage the rapidly expanding mass of data about each us – the Digital You and Me.

I am certainly not the first to think about many of these ideas. In the late 1990s, John Hagel III and Marc Singer defined the concept of an “information intermediary,” or “infomediary,” and predicted the revolutionary potential of such a company if enough individuals trusted it with their personal information.

A number of good faith (and not so good faith efforts) have been made since that time to build infomediaries, but none have succeeded. I’ve had the chance to learn from some of these early pioneers. Their failures, along with the growing success of companies whose only business model is collecting and selling data on each of us, have greatly informed my thinking about Personal and how to build a company worthy of such trust.

If we get this right, Personal and its community of Owners (we try not to use the enterprise-centric words “users” or “consumers”) can help ensure that the there will not be a John Rockefeller and Standard Oil that come to dominate this exciting new world of data. We can all be tycoons of our own data and time and enjoy the incredible, life changing benefits that we believe will result. (But more on that in subsequent posts.)

I look forward to hearing your candid thoughts and reactions, including your concerns and worries about the business. As convinced as I am in the ultimate rights and power of personal data belonging to individuals, I think we are entering a period every bit as messy, complex and challenging as the early days of our American experiment with democracy. No one has ever governed a society where the Digital You and Me exists alongside the real you and me. And certainly no one has ever dealt in a world where their digital self becomes the lifeblood and currency of how we live and interact with everything around us. Exciting? Yes! But also scary and entirely unknown.

For those who are interested, sign-upto receive and invitation going out later this fall to join our beta community.

S.