A few weeks ago E. Wyatt and T. Vega wrote of the then forthcoming FTC report on net privacy in "Stage Set for Showdown on Online Privacy" (NYT November 9, 2010):
"Consumer advocates worry that the competing agendas of economic policy makers in the Obama administration, who want uniform international standards, and federal regulators, who are trying to balance consumer protection and commercial rights, will neglect the interests of people most affected by the privacy policies. “I hope they realize that what is good for consumers is ultimately good for business,” said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America."The report contains what look like some good, balanced, and practical guidelines for how consumers and information collecting entities interact on the web and elsewhere.
I'd like to propose, as a thought experiment, a more radical approach. What if we started from the premise that everyone owns her own information. You own you opinions, your attitudes, and the traces your behavior might create. If this information is valuable to another entity, they are free to bid on it. We don't need privacy protections, we just need an infrastructure that will allow for a market for private information to operate.
A website or a retailer can have an offer, right at the front door: if you want to browse here, I want to know your name and take note of what you look at. The consumer, in return, can say, you can watch me, for 5 dollars. Consumers can make money by moving around the net and generating value. The entities who host websites on which behavior turns into information turns into value would also be entitled to a share.
Now take the idea a step further. Suppose rather than selling my information I agree to license it. This time I say, you can watch me for $5 but down the road, if any value accrues to you by virtue of you aggregating my information with that of others, I want a cut. As my information goes upstream, up the aggregation pyramid, it becomes a component in something valuable: I deserve a share.
Of course, we'll be told this is completely impractical. Retailers and other entities would just build in the cost. And the transaction costs would be too high. Maybe. But we've got micro-credits worked out at the level of single click-throughs. I don't think the barriers would be technical.