Who controls your data?

One of the big questions of todays world is obviously who the owner of your personal data really is.

Privacy advocates have for a long time been fighting the intrusive data retention laws that has been proposed all over the globe. Information about your connections to the networks are stored and being given out already. The threat that might be the biggest one is however not the one of the governments trying to monitor (since they will ultimately fail at that), but rather that the people we set up as keepers of our data being forced to hand over data.

It was just revealed that Twitter is being bullied into handing over data to the US Government about people involved in/with WikiLeaks of different sorts. The data requested is personal information, such as private messages and IP addresses they have used, and essentially all other data that might be available.

This of course raises a lot of concerns – the US government is forcing a US company to give out personal data about citizens of other nations – for instance Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who also happens to be a member of the Icelandic Parliament. In the non-digital world this would not be acceptable obviously. Even if the conversations Birgitta had is between her and someone on Iceland, it will be handed over if the subpoena is not squashed. The borderless networks are only borderless in use, not in physical locations of the servers containing data.

Facebook has probably received similar threats. We have no idea on what the result of that has been – maybe we will see people being denied Visa into the US in the future for being a member of a Bradley Manning support group on Facebook.

The problem is not that we share our information with eachother – it’s that we don’t own it and manage it ourselves. We entrust companies to do this for us, the same companies that run most of the internet. We’ve gone from a decentralised system with multiple communities to a centralised network with few hubs and major communities that enforce their own social values into our social sphere.
People have been deleted from Facebook for having immoral profile pictures. You are not allowed to mention certain words and URLs on Facebook – not even in our own private messages between friends – making us change our own behaviours.

And control is something that’s everywhere. People host their email with Googles Gmail service, their videos on YouTube. Noone gets paid, besides Google with their stock price going up. We’re even creating the worlds, by far, best translation tool with Google Translate, without getting paid. Instead of this wonderful system being owned by us, the public creators, we’re giving away our input and combined intelligence to a listed company on the US stock exchange.

If you watch the top 100 list of websites in the world you will notice one thing – it’s dominated by a few companies and mostly they are from the US. They do not only control the websites on the list, but also many of them are own and control the servers for many other sites and services. The cloud, a popular term in the current internet sphere, is basically mega server parks where you can rent space for your services. The major players here are Amazon and Google. They are also controlling what you can and can not do on their servers and hence this leads to self censorship in order to not violate terms.

And besides these huge US corporations running most of the services and servers of the network, we are entrusting another US entity to run the heart of the internet – the root servers. This is the system that converts a domain name into an IP address where a service can be reached. It’s supervised by ICANN, an US corporation. And the US department of commerce has a veto on what goes into the root zone file, making them in essence able to control the whole infrastructure of the current internets.

This does not stop on just the web. Apple has introduced the “App Store” concept, where you buy your software (and content) from them directly for your Apple devices. That means that developers of software and content need to abide to their terms of services – hence newspapers started selfcensoring their publications in order to be published on Apple devices. And looking into the future, I would not consider it unlikely that if the new Mac App Store, where you can buy software and content for the Mac computers, would be the only legitimate way to get applications in the future for the Mac users. We are being considered to just consume and not participate. We’re being controlled. Our computers will turn into a consumer application instead of a tool for communication, creation and participation.

And we’re just taking it. We can see how wrong it is, but we’re not doing enough to fight back. It’s time to reclaim the networks. We should pressure legislation to protect the ownership of our personal data, even if hosted by social networks and other services. And we should come up with technical solutions, maybe the like of Diaspora, to physically contain the data in our own spheres, so that it can not legally be given away by the service providers. Because today we’re putting our billions of eggs in the same basket.


#1 maloki on 01.08.11 at 12:09

I think a lot of people are overwhelmed or don’t think that anything they themselves do will change things. That’s a common problem.

De-centralizing is a start. Sort of like we’ll need to reboot the Internet. Which sounds a bit scary.
Things change, and they always will, there will unfortunately always be power hungry people, who will abuse what they got. Even if they didn’t intend to in the first place, and some of them might actually think that they are acting good.

But, yes, you are absolutely right, we have to fight and we have to fight now.

#2 Yotoen on 01.08.11 at 12:15

Great post, I would just like to point out that your remark “No one gets paid, besides Google” is only true for some people. I’m playing a bit of devil’s advocate here, but since I make money via adsense it’s hard for me to totally condemn the current system.

I do agree with you though, long-term, the best model is one where individuals control their own data.

#3 OlofB on 01.08.11 at 12:17

I reacted when I read the sentence “The problem is not that we share our information with eachother – it’s that we don’t own it and manage it ourselves.”

Particularly the use of “own it” is troublesome in my humble opinion. It reveals a view of information as “ownable” – that is the IP-view of the world. Intellectual property is after all a way of seeing ideas/expressions as ownable, which is think is flawed philosophically.

The problem is rather that we don’t “control it” – the control of the information is in the hands of companies that are not able to say no when pressured politically or economically.

#4 Tweets that mention Who controls your data? — Copy me happy -- Topsy.com on 01.08.11 at 12:23

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#5 peter on 01.08.11 at 12:23

#3. You have a point, but I’m refering more to the personal data, where I think ownership and control is possible. Ownership in terms of the type of sphere I share my personal data in. In any connection to another party I will remove my ownership, but if you look at origins, if I have my files on for instance Dropbox I trust that the ownership (for a lack of better word) is mine until I decide that I want to share it. If the company shares it with someone else, they owned it to begin with, which I do not think is right.

#6 Troed on 01.08.11 at 13:02

We’re creating digital nation states, in effect moving our digital aura between jurisdictions without being able to move our sense of justice with them. I thought about this recently – http://blog.troed.se/2010/12/03/what-does-a-digital-nation-state-look-like/ – but I can’t say I’ve come upon an easy solution. It feels weird suggesting physical nation states to replicate Internet services for their citizens (not really doable) and if not the end result seems to be somewhat .. interesting.

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#8 OlofB on 01.08.11 at 13:39

Yes, and I agree to that model.

But I think using the word “own” about data/information strengthens the IP-view of the world.

Instead, I would say “control”. Your example translated to this nomenclature:

“In any connection to another party I will remove my control, but if you look at origins, if I have my files on for instance Dropbox I trust that the control is mine until I decide that I want to share it. If the company shares it with someone else, they controlled it to begin with, which I do not think is right.”

.. which sounds a bit strange, I admit. 🙂

The distinction really is about public/private in a programming sense.

If a company provides a service that touts keeping my data “private online” they should not, legally, be able to copy the information to third parties.

So the word “control” should be thought of as “the power to share”. Which really only is viable so long as the information is private. As soon as it hits the “public sphere” of internet it’s no longer possible to talk about this control (unless you’re a IP-enforcement lobbyist!).

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#10 Stanley on 01.08.11 at 17:45

Not sure I agree with this.

Your data, is something you produce and have on your computer. When you start an account on some service, you agree on those terms, and the data you upload on that service, cease to be your data. This is something one needs to be aware of, and that’t why I for instance don’t upload photos and personal information on third parties sites.

These companies have the right to to set up terms as they please.

The only way to “fight” this is to compete in the market, putting the “bad” companies out of business.

#11 Zacqary Adam Green on 01.08.11 at 19:31

Centralization is an essential first step in the creation of something big and beautiful. But this centralization will quickly, and inevitably, become unstable, causing a massive explosion and leading to a decentralized, bigger, and more beautiful thing.

This is true of things such as the universe, governments, human society, and the Internet.

I take comfort in the fact that these private companies who control our data and our Internet will only be able to enjoy it for so long. It wants to be ours, it wants to be free, and it will be. Nobody can stop that.

#12 Jacob Hallén on 01.08.11 at 20:50

I think you are hitting something that few people know, but which the ancients on the internet ahve thoroughly innternalized. I have been on the Internet (then called Arpanet) since 1981. I run all of my websites from my own servers. I have all my mail on a server I control, or in the case of being a functionary in an organisation, on a sevrver the organisation controls. I run a blog on inferior software, because I can run it on my own server, and I know the porgramming language it is written in. I have a precense in Facebook and LinkedIn, but I never put any vital information there. On Facebook, I accept friend invitations according to a strict ruleset. I never make any invitations myself.

This puts me in control of my net precense and it comes to me naturally. I wonder how we can teach newbies to have the ame amount of control, because it really is an individual problem. Each person has to make intelligent and informed decisions.

#13 avi on 01.08.11 at 22:01

I think this article goes right to heart of the issue. The internet is the largest public sphere in existence and belongs in very real sense to our global society but at the same time a huge portion of this sphere is controlled by big corporations many of whom have to answer to the government of the United States. It is in our best interest to push for decentralisation. We also have to demand high standards from service providers. They should use open and interchangeable formats and standards. They have to be transparent about their processes, especially any practice of data retention. They have to commit to a general policy of minimal data collection and provide the means to their users to access all data that was collected about them. Most importantly we have to get it into the consciousness of the mainstream that anything less is a bad bargain for them, because ultimately, and rather unfortunately I think, this will be decided by the consumers and what they care about.

#14 Qui contrôle vos données ? on 01.09.11 at 09:14

[…] Le harcèlement politique dont est victime Wikileaks a au moins comme bénéfice de pointer les faiblesses de l’architecture actuelle du Web. La protection des données personnelles est un des domaines où la situation est la plus préoccupante. […]

#15 Jens Vegeby on 01.09.11 at 10:25

The day, if it comes, that apple locks the platform to the appstore. That’s the day I will abandon OS X. I love the OS, but I hate the concept of “iOS”. I want to be free.

#16 ANNM on 01.09.11 at 11:23

Unless you use encryption, there are no “Private messages” on public networks.

#17 OlofB on 01.09.11 at 12:34

ANNM – does Dropbox e.g. use https?

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#19 Jonathan on 01.09.11 at 19:16

I agree with Stanley. Although Peter makes a good point about control of data, he leaves out the option of choice. Like others, I choose very carefully what I deposit on Facebook’s servers, knowing that I do not control it once it is there. I also choose not to post things, as I would rather remain in control of the data.

Humans have been conditioned to think they have no choice when it comes to certain things, and this post seems to espouse that idea with regard to personal data on the internet. True, we may be limited in our choices of servers on which to post personal data, but that is not the choice on which you should focus. The true choice is whether to post at all. Focus on the right choice.

#20 Thilo on 01.10.11 at 01:56

And this is exactly why I think Flattr should look into all possibilities to purge transaction data as soon as possible. I understand that financial services regulations need you to keep records of how much each user has paid to you, and how much you have paid to WikiLeaks, but is it really necessary to keep the clickstream data that maintains the connection between the user and WikiLeaks? I think the core concept of Flattr that the individual clicks are decoupled from the monthly flatrate payments can play into this argument nicely. This should also be comparable to telephone providers not having to store individual call logs once they become irrelevant for billing purposes thanks to flatrate contracts.

#21 Gustav Wetter on 01.10.11 at 09:50

#19 Jonathan:
The real “choice” online when it comes to social networking sites is (for the broad majority of Internet users) limited to a handful of big corporations. Are these the best providers of social networking online? Not necessarily; they just happen to be the ones with the most money to back them up. It’s like with Coca Cola or Pepsi Cola; the average Joe believes he is “free to choose” between these two. The thought that he need not drink either one never occurred to him because he has been brainwashed since day one not to question this “choice” in a broader sense. Consider Microsoft vs. free software!

In this oligopoly of social networking sites and software providers, a user mostly needs a degree in computer science before even reflecting over the implications of his choice of Internet services and software. This is the reason why the Pirate Party and free software community consists mainly of IT-technicians and engineers; we are the ones that, on an early stage, saw this problem (the control of information on the Internet) coming.

We are dealing with a huge knowledge gap here which we need to address. We need to educate the people of the Internet so that they understand that their choice as a consumer is of great importance. The same way as choosing organic/fair trade food in the supermarket has a great positive effect for the environment and the third world producers, choosing free and uncensored Internet/computer software WILL make the world a better place.

#22 Dai on 01.10.11 at 19:33

@OlofB I happen to disagree with you I want to own all my personal information and I want full and absolute control over it. After all it is mine. Please come and join http://privacy.status.net/ we nned more people like your selfs to help spread the word on what is happening to our data and personal information.

#23 Faisal Kidwai on 01.12.11 at 07:36

Brokep – Governments around the world are already deciding what goes in and out of internet and are also tightening the noose, so what is the solution?

How can individuals, activists and others who don’t want the governments to have total control of the internet find a way to say whatever they want, share whatever they want and see whatever they want?

#24 El futuro llegó hace rato… | Partido Pirata on 01.12.11 at 15:16

[…] artículo quien controla tu información (eng) muestra algunos detalles preocupantes sobre la situación actual de la privacidad […]