A networked economy within the context of capitalism has driven a scenario where our online lives are increasingly a commodity to be tracked and mined, bought and sold, leveraged and re-leveraged, frequently without our explicit knowledge, consent or understanding of what this can mean to us in the future.
Companies with rich consumer data, and who know how to use it, reign supreme. Google has acknowledged that by tracking a person's messages and Internet movements, an algorithm can accurately predict where that person will go next. Tools of the trade include but are not limited to; tracking cookies, which follow us all over the Internet, "scraping services" which monitor social networks and discussion boards and capture personal information, or recommendations to friends as with "liking" on Facebook which makes our preferences instantly public. This creates a market for advertisers to bid for the privilege of tracking users in real time and showing us their content, even as we signal we may be making a purchasing decision- for example, by reading about a product, or entering keyword search terms.
This means that those who control access to our personal data can and sometimes do control our experience on the web - making us vulnerable to manipulation and infringing on our basic human liberties, namely, the right to self-direct the line between our public and private selves.
Privacy policies on many popular sites usually emphasize that they do not engage in selling or sharing "personally identifiable information" but marketers don't actually need our names when they know just about everything else about us, and will, once we place an order.
This feeds an unhealthy power imbalance; why is it that our own data is hidden from us and then used to sell us more stuff? Convenient arguments by those who control or track our data emphasize that 'the era of privacy is over' anyway and 'what is good for the advertiser must be good for the consumer' because 'they invested in the infrastructure' so they can 'personalize the web experience', and if we're going to have to consume anyway it may as well be something we like.
Well, OK - until it is otherwise. But in the bricks and mortar world, just because a developer invested in the infrastructure of a mall doesn't mean they get to follow us around to all the stores and make note of what we bought or decided against. Even when online "personalization" drives the purchase of something we think we need or want, the fact of the matter is that they had to invade our privacy in order to offer us this "benefit" -a high price to pay.
In fairness, the line between personalization and manipulation can sometimes be unclear and different people have different values when it comes to privacy and consumerism. The crux of the ethical issue is when that line gets crossed for any one of us individually. Crucially, we are rarely made aware that any personal line has been crossed--and while it is bad enough to have our privacy invaded, it is worse when we don't know the invasion has occurred, and worst to be subject to manipulation through this lack of knowledge.
It does not need to be this way. Just as it is possible for marketers to put a value on our data (whether as part of a demographic group or interest category or as individuals), it is possible for consumers to put a value on the attention and time that is imposed upon us by the marketer. With so much data available, why not endeavor to leverage this dynamic for more comprehensive social and economic benefit?
Existing business models such as consumer feedback or reviews in exchange for discounts, content or other consideration demonstrate that our personal data is worth paying for. But we can take it further, increasing our privacy and financial benefit while still enabling focus and targeting by marketers.
Consider the idea of a personal tracking widget that allows consumers to capture their personal data ahead of marketers, and then sold in a fully transparent online marketplace? Supply and demand price signals could drive sales of anonymous user data to companies who sought mass behavioral statistics, as well as highly personal information, giving the consumer more control and marketers more ethical access.
Of course, one could argue that placing consumers in control of their personal data would not only deprive them of the expert knowledge and pure intentions of marketers, but also risk billions in lost sales of otherwise irrelevant, mindless stuff -and thus perilously endanger an already fragile economy. But who is in charge here? We create the form of value -and the potential benefit to others of knowing how we live our lives- by doing something, anything, really, online to begin with. As creators, we must direct and benefit from the value we provide. Anything less is a sophisticated form of digital exploitation.
Erik Rothenberg is the Managing Director of The URSULA Project, a not for profit organization with a comprehensive measurement and valuation system that promotes a higher quality of life for all life on earth, and the President of 3Phases, Inc. a large scale solar power developer.