THE BLOG
11/29/2010 02:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Who Owns the Digital You?

"Twenties and Thirties it was the role of government, Fifties and Sixties it was civil rights. The next two decades it's gonna be privacy. I'm talking about the Internet. I'm talking about cell phones. I'm talking about health records and who's gay and who's not. And moreover, in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?"

 
- Sam Seaborne, The West Wing (Season 1, Episode 9, 1999)

This could be your day:

...You read an article online that the average web user has hundreds, if not thousands, of web tracking files (called "cookies") watching you browse from site-to-site and reporting back to god-knows-where. Adding insult to injury, the site where you read this article adds another cookie to your browser...

...You log into Facebook and discover that somehow, without your approval, you are now a member of NAMBLA's Facebook group, the result of your friends' poor idea of a joke and the new "feature" in groups that Facebook management added thinking it would be okay to allow friends to do this without your say so...

...From the window of your home office you see a vehicle that looks like the "fun, wacky" Google Street View truck pass by and you wonder, "Did they just get access to my WiFi passwords?"...

...You now fear using any new web product that comes along, such as Google Buzz, remembering how after you saw it magically appear in Gmail and you turned it on, your most emailed private contacts were somehow made public?...

...You read about how those who run the companies that know the most about you online are saying to "get over" the loss of privacy, or that if you want to be acting anonymously online "maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."...


With all that, you'd be forgiven for thinking, as Andrew Sullivan wrote, that online privacy is dead, and that maybe if "you don't tense up," over the loss, "it will hurt less." You are not alone.

You may also think you have a "privacy problem," but technically you have a bigger issue - an identity problem. A true "online identity crisis," as it were, as online privacy is a subset of "online identity." See: I believe you can boil down the entire multifaceted online privacy issue to a single nine-word statement and a single five-word question.

Here is the statement: There is a "real-you" and a "digital-you."  

The "digital-you," this digital doppelganger of yours, deeply, deeply affects the "real-you" (and will almost certainly outlive the "real-you" by many generations at least).

This "digital-you" may consist of little more than a nine-digit social security number, a wisp of an existence, but it's there on one of various digital networks.  But for most of us our digital selves are much more substantial and fleshed out.  Enough to fill five or six hard disc drives at least.  And if you are under 18, chances are your "digital-you" is even more substantial: certainly terabytes, maybe petabytes, of images, thoughts, writings, emails, facts, idle thoughts, blog posts, political rants, religious inklings, musical tastes, sexual fantasies, and more. Fears, hopes, and dental records all lumped together in one hard-to-imagine digital approximation of the human being you are, or were. It's a digital echo that we all leave behind us. For some of us, the aggregate may be the truest portrait of ourselves that will ever exist.

And the fate of your "digital-you" and "real-you" couldn't be more intertwined.

This begs the key question I promised earlier, which is: "Who owns the digital-you?"  

At this moment, there is a quiet "identity war" going on for this ownership of the "digital-you." A battle for your likes and your links -- your interests, your passions, your information, everything about the "digital-you" that is public or that the combatants in this war help make public.  And the spoils of this war are great: the central business model of most of the information marketplace right now is about offering you "free" services in exchange for information, giving up what was formerly nobody's business but your own.

What was "nobody's business" is now big, big business.

Jack Shafer got it when he wrote:

"...The privacy problem is really one of our own making. We're the ones who surrender the privacy of the contents of our e-mail, calendars, and contacts to Gmail, which then sells ads against those contents. We give the mapping services our home addresses and our destinations... We share our comings and goings by checking in on Foursquare. We let iTunes catalog our music libraries in exchange for its "Genius" recommendations. We submit volumes of personal information to Facebook for Mark Zuckerberg to monetize. None of these exploitations should come as a surprise. They weren't forced on us. If we read the voluminous "terms of service" agreements that we check yes to in return for these free services, we'd see that the providers of "free" services were very candid about how they'd use our personal information."

And in their battle by omission or co-mission a troubling pattern forms: privacy is treated in a cavalier way, boundaries get pushed back, there is a public outcry, and then the offending company pulls their privacy standards back up, but NOT as far as they were previously. And then wash, rinse, repeat.

The Kenyan aphorism applies: "When elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers." In this case, it's our identity and our privacy that does.

The combatants in the identity war over the "digital-you" want you to cede them control and stewardship of it. They want you to trust that they can navigate and avoid "the creepy line" of intrusion for you, even if they "walk right up to it."

So who owns the Digital-You?

I'll explore who should in the next post in this series, but here are spoilers: not them.
Or anyone like them.