There has been an idea bouncing around tech circles for a while now. It’s about online identity and how we should return control of it to individuals.
Right now, a lot of our digital identity is controlled by large corporations who profit enormously from that control. For reasons of fairness, privacy, and control, there’s an argument from the EU and others to take control from these large corps and give it back to individuals.
Trust and preference
When we’re talking about identity here we’re really talking about two different things, which are often confused in this debate.
One is about trust: are you who you say you are. This is important for accessing everything from email and social networks to bank accounts and government services. A trusted online identity is a vital component for many digital services, with different levels of verification required for different tiers of service.
The other is about preference. Based on who you are, what you have viewed and consumed, and the behaviour of those in your network, what might you want to consume in the future. This is the information that is so valuable to brands and retailers, and hence to the social networks.
The argument for repatriating control of this preference information to individuals has been criticised for being somewhat ‘Ayn Rand-ian’. It is characterised as being all about the preference information: “Put property rights on that data and allow it to be traded. Free markets solve everything etc.”
There would be a lot of merit to this criticism but for two things. Firstly, the trade in this preference data has already been commercialised. Right now the rightful owners of this data are excluded from the market, profiting from it not at all and without any meaningful control over its use. Free markets may not solve everything, but a free market is infinitely better than the current one which is rigged against the consumer.
Secondly, the financial capital bound up in preference data is inextricably linked to the social capital that creates the trust in our identity. The ‘me’ that posts and shares is the same ‘me’ that votes and banks, and the same ‘me’ that shops and clicks. Separating the three across the myriad ways that we log in and out of payment engines, social networks, shopping sites and more is near impossible. The various threads may not form a totally coherent whole but they nonetheless represent a single, if fuzzy, me.
The argument that I should control this social aspect of my online identity has nothing to do with commercial gain. It’s a simple principle of human rights.
Personally, I think there’s a valid argument to me made that we should be the ones to profit from choosing to share our own preference data. But the real argument for repatriating identity to individuals is that we should have the right to control who we are and how we present ourselves, whatever the domain.