Owning Our Own Personal Information

A recent article (“Fixing the Digital Economy”) by Jaron Lanier in the New York Times describes how we can fix our current online privacy problems by owning and controlling our personal information. I agree and am very pleased to see this idea being advocated.

As we move into the information age, it is very clear that information truly has value. This is particularly true of our personal information – what we buy, where we go, who we communicate with (via phone, email, text, etc.), and which web sites we browse, not to mention our medical and financial records. At present, we’re in what might be termed the “Wild West” of personal information, where whoever has our data can (in general) use it for whatever they wish. But unlike the cattle rustlers of old who deprived ranchers of purloined cattle, our appropriated personal information is only copied. Because of this, perhaps we haven’t been sensitive enough to the problem.

When I ask people about health information privacy, the concerns seem to fall into two categories. First, there are those who just don’t want their information released because of embarrassment or possible negative consequences for their employability. But, in my experience, an even larger group is concerned because they know their information is being aggregated and sold with no compensation being returned. This seems fundamentally unfair and unreasonable – much like financial banks loaning our collective deposits and returning no interest. This sense of injustice is widespread and permeates discussions of personal privacy.

In this information age, it seems to me that we should own our personal information – just like any other property. Others should only be allowed to use it with our permission – and only for the purpose and time period we specify. If the information is being used to benefit us, then we’d likely approve and perhaps accept the benefit alone as compensation. But if it’s being used to enrich others, then it seems reasonable that some of the financial returns should accrue back to us.

This is not a new concept. In a 1996 article entitled “Markets and Privacy,” Laudon proposed that personal information should be the property of each person. Furthermore, he presented persuasive arguments that doing this would actually increase economic activity and create huge new personal information markets. The oft-cited concerns that imposing consent requirements for the use of personal information would diminish the value of the information aggregator franchises (e.g., Google, Facebook) are overblown and largely incorrect. While it would require substantial changes, it would actually be a huge net benefit for them. Lanier makes this same point in his New York Times article.

Finally, personal ownership and control of medical records is essential to the development of a feasible and sustainable health information infrastructure using health record banks, as has been described in this space before. This is an urgent and important problem for the nation.

So what do you think? Do you think you should be able to control the use of your personal information? If so, what can/should we do to promote this?

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