On remembering, and the economic value of data

26 Sep

I had forgotten (ironic, really) the reason why I was interested in Facebook over the weekend. I had listened briefly to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday morning, and there was a short segment on the recent Facebook changes. This link may not stay around, and may not be accessible outside the UK, so I’ll try to quote what I need to make my points. The protagonists were presenter John Humphreys (who appeared never to have used Facebook), Julie Meyer, CEO of Ariadne Capital, and Viktor Mayer-Scheonberger, Professor of Internet Governance at Oxford Internet Institute. I don’t know these people at all.

Two things caused my ears to perk up. Near the end, Viktor M-S (who appears to have a book, possible called “Delete” to promote, that I have not read) suggests that in the analogue world the default is to forget, but “now we have shifted, in the digital agetoward a system, and Facebook is a prime example of this, where the default is in fact remembering”. What struck me was how opposed this statement was to the rhetoric of digital preservation, where the story is all about how the digital age will cause all of us to forget everything, unless we set up Trusted Digital repositories to ingest our content and disseminate it to us, later, having made appropriate obeisance to the great god OAIS. I’ve written before that I think these issues are overstated, so I won’t repeat it here, but I was sympathetic to the good Viktor.

The other thing that I noticed was Julie Meyer saying (in relation to the data that Facebook snaffles about us) “an asset of ourselves is being used by a company and we’re not getting anything out of it”. At another point she says “we’re not getting any economic value for our data”.

Now in this case, I think she is just plain wrong. Facebook runs a vast, highly expensive network that provides valued services to hundreds of millions of people, for free. Access to that free network is the economic value we get from Facebook having access to our data.In fact, that data is critical to Facebook’s sustainability.

However, as I’ve discovered since (see previous post), it’s not just our actions in the Facebook site that are being “sucked in” to Facebook, nor even our actions on sites that we have agreed should give data to Facebook. Any page we visit on the web that had a Facebook Like button will plant a cookie in our browser and leave a trace of our visit for Facebook (or other advertisers perhaps) to exploit. I can’t see a way to stop that other than denying or deleting Facebook cookies every day. That’s the data that we’re not getting economic value for. It may also be data that is against European privacy laws, and I certainly wonder if it is contrary to the UK Data Protection Act!

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