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The data about you may not always be your data, and that is why you should tread cautiously in this new data economy era!

The Data About You May Not Be Your Data!

Technology is becoming pervasive day by day. With the proliferation of social networks & free services, our data is at stake, big time!

You may often think your data on social networks is private, secure, and is owned by you. But there is more to this, and it starts with a critical question — How do you define "your data"?

Data being private and secure is entirely feasible, and we should be concerned about it only so much. However, ownership, on the other hand, is a grey area. Moreover, mostly, it is not working in users' favor.

However, before we could delve into the question of ownership, it is essential to understand and define the term — your data.

There is data, and then there is meta-data.

In technical parlance

Your data is simply a piece of information, photographs, stories, descriptions, posts, and many other things. It is crystal clear that the creator or the rightful custodian usually own data, and hence it is your data. Unless you assign or license it via proper agreement, you own the copyright of your data.

Now, the meta-data, it is essentially the data about you or data about your data. It contains relevant information about your data, which helps in identifying its nature and feature.

While the data may or may not be informative for a specific set of users, such as your contacts or people who you explicitly share it with, metadata is always educational for a broader set of users.

Metadata is always educational for a broader set of users.

How do service providers use metadata?

When you are using social networks, their system tracks various parameters including (but not limited to) your mouse movements, time on page, what & when you search for something, where you stop scrolling (and read), what you skip or dismiss, what you like, and many other activities. All these details eventually form a persona (of you) in the form of metadata.

While you are uploading and posting your data, which is still owned by you, the metadata is a processed version of your behavior and usage, which social networks have a free hand to use. They give this metadata and the persona of you to the advertisers for targeting ads to you. It may not be just limited to commercial advertisements. They can very well use it for any other purposes, for instance, political advertisements.

Social networks, this way, make money out of your metadata, while you remain contained with thinking that you own your data.

What do you get in return? Is it worth it?

The prevalent argument about this data transaction is that you, as a user, get compensated with their free services. You get to use social network software free of cost and can use various features to your liking.

As I see it, the problem is not companies using users' metadata. However, the problem is when it is harvested from users at peanut prices and then sold at a rate of diamonds.

This exchange of value — user metadata versus social network services is imbalanced. Just look at the graph shown above. It shows you how advertising revenue (off your metadata) has grown for social networks and free services in the last seven years. Do you think your experience and value received from their free services have increased by the same multiple?

Many of us would loathe that type of inequality and want social networks to provide fair compensation for it. It is also interesting to see how these platform companies react when this is called for; have a look at this post.

Many of us loathe inequality in value exchange and want to be fairly compensated for it.

How does this work with other services that are not social networks?

Just take an example of any other service that also uses your metadata for their benefits without compensating whether they are heart-attack risk checking services based on your medical data, ancestry check services, or internet-connected thermostat. All these services are paid but have all your data, and they know more than they should.

Now, some might say that the metadata is their processing output and thus owned by them, which is arguable. I think the data here has two types — inputs and output. In the examples above, any input given to avail the services such as age, weight, etc. is the input data. It belongs to the owner of the data (i.e., users), while the heart-attack risk or ancestry info is the output data and may supposedly belong to the company (as it is derived using their algorithm).

However, the question is if the output data is useful by itself? Well, it is not. Only the dataset one can form by combining inputs and corresponding outputs are meaningful for anyone to use and infer.

The outcome data is, therefore, actually co-owned. There is significant unrest these days regarding data ownership, and part of that is due to an imbalanced exchange of value. Companies get the data from users at peanut prices and sell the aggregate at diamond prices, which typically annoys users and imbibes the feeling of being used.

In either case

The data about you may not always be your data, and that is why you should tread cautiously in this new data economy era!

Ideally, using users' data (or metadata) in any manner for any other purpose than providing services to the users should be treated as a value generation exercise. Therefore, companies doing this should treat users as employees or workers or shareholders. Accordingly, companies should share the future profit derived from the use and sale of this dataset with users. Expecting this model to work out is indeed a long shot, and many would call it a pipe dream.

Nonetheless, if you are in a position to identify this type of data usage upfront by the service provider, then insist on co-ownership of the data about you and demand fair compensation for it.

The data about you may not always be your data, and that is why you should tread cautiously in this new data economy era!

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