Redefining and Standardizing ‘Ownership’

Facebook, by virtue of its sheer size and scope, is often the first to run into issues that the rest of the social web will need to address sooner rather than later. To its credit, Facebook seems to be trying to address these issues in a way that protects their short and long term business while balancing the needs of the community.

By observing these actions the DataPortability project, and the wider community, can learn lessons on what works and what doesn’t so we can all adopt clear community endorsed best practices.

The latest Facebook step (misstep?) occurred last week when they made some changes to their Terms of Service and one of the items of contention by many is the following statement:

“You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content. “

“So Who Owns Your Data” is always a question that myself and other members of the DataPortability Project (DPP) have grappled with for some time. No doubt ‘ownership’ of data is top of mind to people who are interested in data portability.

We have said in the past that Ownership without Control is worthless. Scope of Control, however, seems to stem from ownership. That is, you should only be able to control what you own. So the fundamental question of Ownership is still important.

‘Ownership’, however, is tricky when you are talking about bits and bytes that are getting shared, indexed, replicated and mixed together by multiple services and participants.

Perhaps Ownership is not the right metaphor at all? Late last year, fellow DPP co-founder Elias took the time to address some thoughts on ‘ownership’ of data with a post titled “You don’t nor need to own your data” that I would recommend reading. In it, Elias discusses traditional concepts of ownership and goes on to suggest that perhaps we need a new term to describe our relationship to social data.

Here is a large section from his post:

First of all, let’s define property ownership: “the ability to deny use of an asset by another entity”. The reason you can claim status to owning your house, is because you can deny someone else access to your property. Most of us have a fence to separate our property from the public space; others like the hillbillies sit in their rocking chair with a shot gun ready to fire. Either way, it’s well understood if someone else owns something, and if you trespass, the dogs will chase after you.


The characteristics of ownership can be described as follows:

  1. You have legal title recognising in your legal jurisdiction that you own it.
  2. You have the ability to enforce your right of ownership in your legal jurisdiction
  3. You can get benefits from the property.

The third point is key. When people cry out loud “I own my data”, that’s essentially the reason (when you take out the Neanderthal emotionally-driven reasoning out of the equation). Where we get a little lost though, is when we define those benefits. It could be said, that you want to be able to control your data so that you can use it somewhere else, and so you can make sure someone else doesn’t use it in a way that causes you harm.

Whilst that might sound like ownership to you, that’s where the house of cards collapses. The reason being, unless you can prove the ability to deny use by another entity, you do not have ownership. It’s a trap, because data is not like a physical good which cannot be easily copied. It’s like a butterfly locked in a safe: the moment you open that safe up, you can say good bye. If data can only satisfy the ownership definition when you hide it from the world, that means when it’s public to the world, you no longer own it. And that sucks, because data by nature is used for public consumption. But what if you could get the same benefits of ownership – or rather, receive benefits of usage and regulate usage – without actually ‘owning’ it?

Property and data – same same, but different
Both property and data are assets. They create value for those who use them. But that’s where the similarity’s end.

Property gains value through scarcity. The more unique, the more valuable. Data on the other hand, gains value through reuse. The more derivative works off it, means the more information generated (as information is simply data connected with other data). The more information, the more knowledge, the more value created – working its way along the information value chain. If data is isolated, and not reused, it has little value. For example, if a company has a piece of data but is not allowed to ever use it – there is no value to it.

Data gains value through use, and additional value through reuse and derivative creations. If no one reads this blog, it’s a waste of space; if thousands of people read it, its value increases – as these ideas are decimated. To give one perspective on this, when people create their own posts reusing the data I’ve created, I generate value through them linking back to me. No linking, no value realised. Of course, I get a lot more value out of it beyond page rank juice, but hopefully you realise if you “steal” my content (with at least some acknowledgement to me the person), then you are actually doing me a favour.

Ignore the above!
Talking about all this ownership stuff doesn’t actually matter; it’s not ownership that we want. Let’s take a step back, and look at this from a broader, philosophical view.

Property ownership is based on the concept that you get value from holding something for an extended period of time. But in an age of rapid change, do you still get value from that? Let’s say, we lose the Holy War for people being able to ‘own’ their data. Facebook – you win – you now ‘own’ me. This is because it owns the data about me – my identity, it would appear, is under the control of Facebook – it now owns, that “I am in a relationship”. However, the Holy War might have been lost but I don’t care. Because Facebook owns crap – as six months ago, I was in a relationship. Now I’m single and haven’t updated my status. The value for Facebook, is not in owning me in a period of time: it’s in having access to me all the time – because one way they translate that data into value is advertising, and targeting ads is pointless if you have the wrong information to base your targetting on. Probably the only data that can be static in my profile, is birth-date and gender – but with some tampering and cosmetics, even those can be altered now!

With their change of terms, Facebook is essentially saying that they will ‘forever own’ a copy of your data as part of their archives to do with what they wish. I will go so far as to sympathize personally with the team there and give them an approving nod for some of Zuckerberg’s comments especially acknowledging that they are indeed trying to address some serious questions around how we live our digital lives. It’s not easy and they certainly don’t have to go it alone.

I would invite them, and anyone else interested in the topic, to join one of our most recent TaskForces – the EULA & ToS Taskforce.

Following the example of  Creative Commons, the goal of our task force is to identify and name key concepts that help users and service providers understand what each other expects . The intended output will be a set of documents that can be referenced or included in EULA and TOS agreements and simple descriptions for users to understand what it means when they upload and share data with services providers.

As part of this taskforce, we seek to provide a standard way of describing the relationship between the user and site that is easy to understand and provides both sides with the control that they need.

If you are interested in the subject – now is the time to join us and help define some basic principles that services providers should support by joining and supporting the work that the EULA & ToS Taskforce is conducting.

And another kudos to Facebook for starting a discussion topic immediately on the “People Against the new Terms of Service (TOS)” Facebook Group. Some real use cases and concerns are being captured in that discussion that will help us all as we work towards our common goal.

Some additional posts on the subject of Facebooks New Terms of Service:

7 comments to Redefining and Standardizing ‘Ownership’

  • Todd Hoskins

    I agree that the ownership issue is tricky. Pure ownership in a traditionally defined sense is a fantasy. But ownership in terms of transparency of usage, and the right to benefit from the data I create is something we should all be striving towards. I don’t want to blindly submit to stealth profiteering without my consent or without added benefits.

  • Christian Scholz

    Just to clarify: The goal of this taskforce is for now to define questions to be asked by the user towards these sites. These questions can come in the form of icons which are (hopefully) easy to understand (hence the comparison to CC). It’s for now not so much about the legal aspect but more about the users’ expectations when joining a site.nnIn the end of course some legal text and maybe some form of specification to attach to your data might also be outcomes. I also would like very much that not the site tells me what rights I have on “my” data but that I can tell them what rights they have on my data!nnOf course this is legally all very complicated and I wouldn’t expect an answer very soon but it’s time to work on it as more and more of our living goes digital.nn

  • Gordon Rae

    Ownership of data is a red herring. For thirty years the law on personal data has been framed in terms of security and privacy. This goes back to the 1980 OECD Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and the Transborder Flows of Personal Data.rnrnThe Facebook TOS asks: “You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof.” No mention of ownership, but a very big assertion of rights.rnrnBrian Solis blogged a good discussion of the issues here:

  • Pierre-Yves

    Hi,nnInteresting post.nnWhile reading it, I was wondering if we weren’t mixing property and usufruct (see the 3rd charasteric of ownership Elias described). Pondering a little more, I would underline that ownership also implies an ability to deny any 3rd party to take benefits from the owned object. You may or may not accept to share part or all the benefits you draw from a property, but you have the capacity to choose. Of course, property rights aren’t perfect in certain cases (and personal data are clearly among those cases), which leads to the externalities described in this post (“Data gains value through use”). That ability to decide whether to share or not one’s data usufruct may thus be an aspect to integrate to the data ownership definition.n

  • [...] read which did have a more considered view was the Dataportability blog which, in a post on “Redefining and Standardizing ‘Ownership“, acknowledged that “Facebook, by virtue of its sheer size and scope, is often the [...]

  • Steve Holcombe

    I’ve posted a link to this journal entry as a news item to the Linked networking group, Data Ownership in the Cloud –