Today is the Fourth of July, Independence Day in the United States, commemorating our independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain.
(It also happens to be my birthday, so Happy Birthday to me! )
On this Fourth of July, triggered by some thought-provoking commentary from my recent blog series about Social MDM, I am contemplating how long it will be before we can commemorate the date of a different declaration of independence – An Independence Day for our Personal Data.
At first glance, it’s frustrating to think that we even have to declare the independence of our personal data from the organizations we do business with, which claim ownership of our personal data on the basis that we are their customers. I call this the Fundamental Flaw of Customer MDM. That we should be allowed to own our own data seems like a self-evident truth and an unalienable right.
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Those are the most famous words from the Declaration of Independence, which was written on July 4, 1776. But the United States wouldn’t be officially independent until winning the American Revolutionary War in 1783. The first United States Constitution was adopted in 1787, but the Bill of Rights, comprising ten constitutional amendments guaranteeing many fundamental civil rights and freedoms, wouldn’t be ratified until 1791. Even then, it would still take another 74 years, and a bloody five-year Civil War, before the thirteenth amendment officially acknowledged the self-evident truth that all men are created equal by abolishing slavery in 1865. The fifteenth amendment in 1869 guaranteed voting rights for all men, but it wouldn’t be until the nineteenth amendment in 1919 that women would also have the right to vote. However, racial and gender discrimination would still legally persist in the United States until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – and it would take several decades before the spirit of that landmark legislation would permeate most of American culture.
My point is not to provide a United States civics lesson, but instead to point out that self-evident truths and unalienable rights do not automatically bring about change – and even when government legislation and regulation initiate change, it still takes time for the change to become pervasive.
One of the main reasons that existing data protection and data privacy laws have been largely ineffective is because governments, and many, if not most, of their citizens, have been slow to realize what “all this data stuff” is all about. Meanwhile, companies like Google and Facebook have built financial empires entirely out of data, which users freely gave away in exchange for what they saw as free services, not realizing that they were simply paying in a different currency (i.e., data is essentially a new global currency).
And the, for lack of a better phrase, more traditional companies, with which we exchange our real money for their goods and services, have been collecting our personal data during those financial transactions, and we have had no choice but to accept that this is the way the system works.
For example, if I want to buy a car, and I don’t have enough cash, I have to finance the purchase with an auto loan, which I can’t get without giving my personal financial data to the lending organization, which in turn assumes ownership of my personal data – it’s this last part that’s the problem.
However, only relatively recently have the implications of this data ownership conundrum become a focal point of public discussion. Twenty years ago, few outside of the data management profession really knew (or even cared to know) what the heck data was. But nowadays, thanks (ironically) to companies like Google and Facebook, as well as mobile providers selling data plans for our smartphones, data is no longer an esoteric concept.
Unfortunately, governments and the mainstream public, being late to the game, in the sense of understanding the implications of data ownership, now have to deal with the fact that it will take much more than simply a declaration to establish the independence of our personal data.
I don’t mean to sound dire and pessimistic, since I do honestly believe that, eventually, change will come – we will see a day when we will be allowed to own our own data, when data ownership will be considered just as much of a self-evident truth and unalienable right as our personal freedom, when our Data Rights will be seen as an extension of our Civil Rights.
Although the Status Quo will always Fight the Future, we know that change is the only universal constant. But we also know, from history’s many lessons, that the more significant the change is, the longer it will take for the change to happen.
What Say You?
What do you think it will take, and how long do you think it will take, before we will be able to celebrate an Independence Day for our Personal Data?
Please join the discussion by posting a comment below.
Is Social MDM Going the Wrong Way?