Data Custodianship and the New Information Economy

By Marc Dresner, IIR

I’ve been thinking’and writing’a lot about privacy lately,
and it’s occurred to me that the term may actually be a misnomer when we’re
talking about the collection and use of data about individuals.
John Havens, author of
Hacking H(app)iness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking it CanChange the World,’ summed it up quite well in a presentation at TMRE’s sister
event, The Future of Consumer Intelligence, back in May.

‘This is not about privacy; it’s about
 ‘ John Havens

‘This is not about privacy, which is a preference; it’s
about control,’ said Havens.

Havens’ voice is one in a growing chorus that contends the
Internet economy in its current incarnation’specifically that of data in exchange for services’is fundamentally broken.

Data Slaves Rise Up

Peter Vander Auwera

In July, at the Shopper Insights in Action conference, Peter Vander Auwera, Co-Founder of SWIFT’s Innotribe, who’s written and spoken
extensively on the subject, warned of an impending ‘revolution of the data slaves.’

Vander Auwera’s talk drew on a variety of thought leaders,
all of whom have called for and/or predicted the emanation of a more
egalitarian model. 
For instance:

  • -         
    Jaron Lanier, author of ‘Who Owns the Future?‘ envisions
    a new information economy where people are paid for each instance in which
    information about them is used for commercial purposes.

  • -         
    Internationally renowned security technologist Bruce Shneier even compares the Internet economy to a Feudal system, but Shneier also
    believes a technological way out is inevitable

New Model: The Respect Network

some of this may seem a little fantastical, I wouldn’t dismiss it because to
varying degrees it’s already happening.

Havens in his
presentation advised keeping
an eye on the personal cloud/personal vault industry. (Forrester covers it.)
He also referenced The Respect Network‘billed as ‘the world’s first global,
private cloud network and peer-to-peer data sharing service”as the poster child
for the emerging model:

  • People get paid directly for access to their
  • Provides a centralized, secure private repository
    for whatever data the person wants stored’social media data, photos, credit
    card data, shoe size, etc.
  • Direct peer-to-peer transmission (no
  • Pick and choose which data you want to sell
  • Decide who you want (or don’t want) to sell it
  • Visualization software lets the user look at and
    think about their own data in novel ways

Note: Great WSJ blog on this topic with details about The Respect
Network model. See
the form, you can expect to see more options for consumers to exercise
greater control over the collection and use of their data.
But for now, I think the distinction between privacy and
control is an important one, because the privacy movement shouldn’t necessarily
be construed as blanket opposition to the sharing of consumer data or rejection of the use of that data by

Data ethics will be the new
‘ Jer Thorp

Another speaker from the FoCI conference in May, JerThorp, made a great analogy when he predicted that data ethics will be the new

Thorp is Co-Founder of The Office for Creative Research and former
Data Artist in Residence at The New York Times Co.

He advised companies to start thinking not in terms
of data ownership, but data custodianship
and to position themselves as ‘data ethical,’ which entails:

1.       Informed consent

2.       Transparency around how
the data will be used

3.       The option for people to
have their records terminated (aka ‘the ability to be forgotten’)

If calls for
privacy protection’at least with regard to commercial activities’are really just
an expression of people’s desire to be informed and consulted, then the
solution would seem to be to involve people in the process.

Thorp said he’s had discussions
about consumer data ethics with a lot of companies, and it’s the older,
established corporations that seem most receptive to the concept because ‘they
understand that customer distrust is an untenable proposition.’  


Executives at start-ups, in
contrast, ‘aren’t listening because they have an exit strategy for two years out,’
said Thorp.


In any event, people
may not have to wait for legislators to catch up. The market may sort it out.

Companies that don’t institute ‘data ethical’
policies and practices may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage as
consumers take their business to a rival that has recognized the opportunity.

And like any
market with a large unmet need, expect a variety of new entrants to come to the
rescue with commercially available solutions designed to help people manage and
control their own data.

Marc Dresner is IIR USA’s sr. editor and special communication project lead. He is the former executive editor of Research Business Report, a confidential newsletter for the marketing research and consumer insights industry. He may be reached at Follow him @mdrezz.