Are You? Who Owns You?
by Jon Lebkowsky
Amazon.com recently updated its generally well-conceived privacy
policy, and as part of the update added a disturbing section
on "business transfers":
As we continue to develop our business, we might sell or buy stores
or assets. In such transactions, customer information generally
is one of the transferred business assets. Also, in the unlikely
event that Amazon.com, Inc., or substantially all of its assets
are acquired, customer information will of course be one of the
What's troubling here is that Amazon explicitly claims ownership
of customer data. Think about it: it's clear that personal data
is inherently commodified in "information age" economies, and if
personal data is a commodity, how do you determine ownership? It
seems clear to me that individuals should own their own data, which
means that an individual would explicitly control the uses of that
data, including verbal expressions, demographic data, etc., at least
insofar as it is linked to their identity. (There's still a question
in my mind about the ownership and use of anonymous aggregate data).
If someone wants to use your data, it should only be with your explicit
consent, which is to say that Amazon could only change the rules
about the use of your data if you agree to the change. (Amazon probably
assumes that, by publishing this change and notifying affected users,
they've created a situation wherein ongoing use of the system implies
consent. But should this be the case?)
Amazon is responding to action in the case of Toysmart.com, a bankrupt
company which had posted a privacy statement saying that data about
its customers would not be shared with third parties. However when
the company's finances went south, it tried to sell customer databases
as part of its assets. The Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit
to prevent the sale of the customer database without restrictions
including a requirement that the buyer be 'qualified,' and provide
customers an opportunity to opt out of the customer database.
The crucial issue here was that Toysmart was not keeping the promise
realized a profit and may have to be sold at some point, has created
of customer data, at least not based on the privacy contract. Amazon
realizes the business asset value of its customer data.
Wholier-than-thou Dept.: If I was Amazon, I would do the same thing.
Since I'm not Amazon, I can rant about this practice and imply slime.
Actually, I can't complain too much, because I've always said that
the key issue in cases like this is disclosure: do I know that the
site is collecting data about me? Do I have an opportunity to opt
out? (Of course, one can always opt out by leaving, but what of
data that's already been collected up front?) Is the site offering
me anything in exchange for the opportunity to use my data? And
(most important), if I'm an average bloke with no particular technical
or legal prowess, are these issues/choices presented to me in a
way that I can clearly understand?
So on the plus side, Amazon has made disclosure and has provided
a clear and readable privacy statement. On the down side, this change
is retroactive; it was made after I fed my data to the beast.
<Heaving a deep sigh> Complicating
all this is the fact that I really love Amazon... I have my fingers
in two Amazon associates programs, and I buy books and CDs there.
When I want information about a book, I use Amazon as a reference.
It pisses me off that I have to make this rant.
But it's part of where we are today. The ecommerce shakeout is
happening; boom dot bust, as the Firesign Theatre says. We're in
recovery from dotcoms, we're clean and sober, and we're starting
to look at the Internet and ecommerce with a whole new set of eyeballs.
And we absolutely have to think critically about what we are seeing.
There should be no legal framework within which my data can be
considered someone else's asset. If I loan the use of my data to
Amazon.com to facilitate sales, it's still my data, not Amazon's
to sell, despite the privacy statement or agreement.
You wouldn't think this would require legislation, but it might,
so get wired with your congressman and convince him that we need
to look at this stuff very carefully, while we're in a bit of a
business-to-consumer ecommerce slump, before the next round of aspiring
net.retailers figure it out and begin the next phase.
b i o :
has been soaking in Internet culture and community for the
last decade. He's served as community host/moderator for the WELL,
Electric Minds, and HotWired. He has written technoculture articles
and rants for Wired Magazine, Whole Earth Review, The Austin Chronicle,
21C, Factsheet Five, Mondo 2000, and other publications, and was
the "consciousness" sub-domain editor of The Millennium Whole
Earth Catalog. As co-founder and former CEO of FringeWare, Inc.,
he was a pioneer in electronic commerce and its relationship to
online community. An Internet activist, he was actively involved
in initiatives of the Electronic
Frontier Foundation and the Global Internet Liberty Campaign.
He recently served as Online Community Director for WholeFoods.com
and Web Technology Director for WholePeople.com.