Usually I’m not big on tapping the A list and I certainly try to avoid boys clubs and bun fights, so I guess this is my makeup post. This weeks episode of the Gillmor Gang audio show was stark introduction to the bitchy, geek world equivalent of the Jerry Springer Show. The metaphors are certainly indicative of the jizz-cookie levels of testosterone that were flying: ‘Battle over data ownership‘ ‘the data wars’ ‘guns blazing’. Which is a shame, since the topic under discussion is an interesting and important one – who owns what data and what they get to do with it.
The last couple of weeks has seen MySpace, Facebook and Google make announcements about their variously not-that-portable data portability initiatives. MySpace announced the Data Availability Project, Facebook announced Facebook Connect, Google announced FriendConnect, and Facebook then announced FriendConnect wouldn’t be welcome in the Facebook valley. Commentators have been in general agreement that the new initiatives have more to do with Empire building than with empowering users: instead of services responding to calls that users should be the ones controlling and determining their data, the big web companies have responded with a plethora of widgets, iframes or applications to enact what an an actually distributed presence might look like, maintaining control over who gets to access data and how.
The other key, related issue under discussion recalled Scobles previous Plaxo sponsored data scape of Facebook. Whatever you think about that particular debacle, the wider issue is about what friendship permissions actually mean. During this segment, one of the contestants actually made a comparison between giving his wife ‘permission’ to go to dinner with someone else and giving someone permission to use data in certain ways. Poor woman.
The issue here is a social as well as technical one. If I friend you, in a particular service, I’m giving you access you my data, and technical issues aside, I’m typically doing so with some unspoken agreement between us in mind. This agreement isn’t just a legal one or technical one – it’s also an ethical one.
Chris Saad, co-founder and chair at the Data Portability Project, was the only guy on the show who wasn’t sucked into the posturing and actually attempted to give thoughtful answers to the questions. He pretty much nailed it when he said: "The user is the only one with a clear rational statement about their own data, and there is no good default setting". Unfortunately, very often in the real world, what appears to be clear and rational to one person is clearly inexplicable and unreasonable to another. Scobles struggle to grasp why his friends might object to him using their data in an entirely different context is a great illustration of this. Overlooking the fact that whatever social contract might exist very clearly in one persons mind, we are in a realm of new practices and global, nonuniform etiquette. Making reference to service terms and conditions and privacy agreements can only help so much in an environment where that majority of service users have never actually read them.