The Future of Data Is Licensing

Note: Before my rant, let me just acknowledge that most people's experience with licensing content, including my own, is terrible. If it's to succeed with data, it will need to be improved and automated.

There are a lot of sticky problems with the idea of owning your data. Like when many parties have a claim to a particular piece of data. If I go to a restaurant, then both the restaurant and I have a claim to that fact.

And what about the people who saw me there? Do they have to pay me royalties to mention that they saw me?

Go to War With the Army You Have

The framework that currently shows the most promise is how we approach licensing of media and content. If I take a photo, I can put it under a Creative Commons license for use in certain ways, and I can continue to sell it for money. Similarly, if I have five years of my internet browsing history in a digital repository, I should be able to let some people use it for free under certain terms and be able to charge for its use in other ways. I should also be able to attach a time window to the license. A date after which the license is no longer valid.

In these terms, the restaurant example is still complex, but it's tractable. The restaurant has license to my presence and activity under terms I agree to: Perhaps that my data be anonymized and not sold to third parties, with no facial or biometrics capture allowed. And I, of course, have a right to all the data that I generated there to be used however I see fit.

Honestly, I don't know how to handle the fact that everyone else in the restaurant would also have my presence there as part of their data set. I do think, however, that a solution can be found through some sort of license agreement. There may be a Public Spaces license that allows everyone non-exclusive, limited use of the incidental data they experience in public.

Thanks, I Hate It

Why the hell would we want to bother with something like this? Because currently we're all being exploited and we have no way of avoiding that fact. Currently in our example, the restaurant gets everything and has a reasonable way of profiting from our presence and behavior on its property. It can run facial detection on us from its camera feeds. It can siphon off our phone data from an unsecured wifi router. It can track our movements through bluetooth beacons. It can sell our purchases to Google or some other consumer behavior broker.

As individuals, right now there's nothing to be done about that. The only limit to a business, government, or corporation's data collection is its core principles and its imagination. In other words, there's really no limit, and when paying fines is built into the cost of doing business, there's no accountability.

As a photo editor, I hated dealing with licenses and the gray areas of certain usages. So by no means do I think this is an easy way forward. But absent some conceptual framework that doesn't yet exist or of which I'm unaware, I do think it is the way forward.

Hard, Solvable, and Necessary

There is no realistic way a system like this could exist without extensive automation. Automation of contract and license generation, automation of acceptance, and automation of enforcement. Those are all difficult problems, but they are solvable and they are worth doing. In fact, I don't see how the future can resemble anything we'd want to live in without it.

A great thinker on this topic is Cory Doctorow, although I disagree with him in some ways,. He thinks that ownership is an ill-fitting framework to the types of digital knowledge that is currently monetized by tech companies.

He may ultimately turn out to be right. But we haven't even come close to exhausting the nuance and possibilities that ownership has to offer.

It's up to the doubters of this path to provide an alternative way forward. It's easy to say that data ownership won't work. It's hard to chart a course towards a better world and not just resign ourselves to a corporate dystopia.

Data licensing is the only path forward where the world can operate in a way that somewhat aligns with our intuitions. Most people would like to own and control their data, but many believe it's not realistic and it's not possible.

Let's roll up our sleeves and solve the hard problems. Let's take a mountain of complexity and engineer it down to its simplest essence. If we can get it right on our own terms, equality will emerge in spite of corporate and government intervention, not because of it.

I'd love to hear what you think on the discussion page.

Cover image by Olav Ahrens R√łtne on Unsplash

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