Microsoft's Live Search Cashback Opens Questions on Commerce Data Ownership

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Includes: GOOG, MSFT
by: Dana Gardner

Talk is bubbling up across the blogosphere, Gillmor Gang and Techmeme daily about social graph personal information. This may be among the most important discussions and topics of our time. How the "social mesh" works out now will affect our lives and businesses for a long time. It may even impact how we define what "me" is online. We really need to get it right, ASAP.

Yet much of the talk focuses on technology, privacy, use rights and still loosely defined standard approaches to protecting user control over data. It's still murky about how the online social network services will own and control the user- and relationships-defining data inside of their social networks, including Twitter. But there's a larger set of issues that has to do with how we want technology and the Internet to affect us people, as a business, as a society, as a market of markets and as a species.

UPDATE: Many of these issues came up, especially toward the end, at Friday's Gillmor Gang with Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Director of Engineering David Glazer. One takeaway is that, ironically, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) should be among Google Friend Connect's best friends.

The discussion on social graph data portability gets to a philosophical level quickly, because the ways we have codified our personal relationships to each other -- and to larger organizations or power centers -- over eons does not necessarily apply adequately to the new virtual boundaries. It's hard to know on the Web what defines the rights of the individual, the family, tribe, community, company, village, town, state, nation, civilization, race, or species. Do accepted and proven cultural patterns offline fully translate into social patterns online?

The older established "contracts" -- from Codex Hammurabi to Magna Carta to Mayflower Compact to U.S. Constitution to the User Terms of Agreement -- do not seem to get the job fully done anymore. It's not clear what I am entitled to online, whereas I'm pretty sure I know what I'm entitled to offline, and I know what to do to enforce getting what I'm entitled to offline legally, ethically and politically.

In essence, we as online users and small businesses don't have any social-order contracts with the online providers, other than what their lawyers put in the small print when you "accept" their free or paid services. And, of course, they have made available their privacy policies for all to see. So there. Click away, users galore, while they store away the user data and relationships analytics.

As a person, you only retain the right not to click (as long as you pay throughout the two-year user subscription agreement, or suffer the penalty charge for leaving). If you're lucky you'll be able to take your phone number with you if you walk, but not necessarily your email address, or your contacts, your social interactions' definitions. Most of the data about whatever you did while nestled in the rosy social bosom of their servers remains with them unless they volunteer to let it be open. So far.

Without belaboring the implications on the metaphysical scale, my point is to show that our online social interactions as currently defined and controlled place us into uncharted territory. And as with any social contracts, the implicit and explicit ramifications of where we find ourselves later on needs to taken very seriously.

We'll want the ability to back out, if the unforeseen future warrants it, without too much pain, with our open data intact. We should all want escape clauses for what we do online the next several years, just to be safe. Who you gonna call if it's not fair?

If things don't go well for the user or individual business, what could be done? Because this is about the Web, there isn't a government to lobby, a religious doctrine to fall back on, a meta data justice code of conduct, nor an established global authority to take directives from. The older forms of social contract enforcement don't have a clue. There is only the User Terms of Agreement, the codex of our time. Read it and weep.

Because this is about the Web, the early adopters basically make it up as they go and hope for the best. It's been a great ride. The service providers try and keep up with the fast-changing use patterns, and then figure out a business model that has legs. They write up more User Terms of Agreement. Startups get funded based on their ability to get some skin in the game, even without a business model. They show the investors the User Terms of Agreement, and get their rounds. More work goes into the User Agreements than into the infrastructure to keep the thing working once the clicks come.

This laissez-faire attitude has worked pretty darn well for building out the Web as an industry, thankfully. But now we're talking about more than building out the no-holds-barred Web, we're talking about social contracts... We're talking about what the user possesses from their role in building out the Web, in populating the social networks, the authoring of the blogosphere. Is there any social collective ownership or rights by the participants in the Web? Or is it only really -- in the final analysis -- owned by those who control the means of production of the services?

There's the Web, and there's the blogosphere -- are they they same? What rights does the individual, the person, the blog entity have on the commercial Web? Does the offline me possess the same social powers online? I really don't know.

What's clear is that people like Mike Arrington, Marc Cantor, Steve Gillmor, Robert Scoble and Dave Winer (among many others) want as much freedom about what they do online as what Western Civilization has endowed on them and their ancestors offline. In some circles, and some of these people, want even more social power online than what has been the norm offline. More power to them.

There is a power clash a-brewin'. The U.S. has long struggled over states rights versus federal rights. The individual has looked to both -- and pitted them against each other -- to define and protect individual rights.

But what about online? When push comes to shove, how do the individual rights assert themselves against what the services provider can perfectly legally assert? If the server farm says they own your online address book, they probably do legally (see the Use Terms). If they say they own the meta data from your click stream on their servers over the past three years, they probably do.

So far, user rights have been strictly voluntary on behalf of the providers. Some are built into agreements. The needed rising tide of online adoption patterns and essential need to generate traffic and clicks has protected users, to a point. Let's hope it continues. I hope voluntary is enough.

Folks, you should recognize that you already have a lot of power, given the fact that social networks are falling all over themselves to show how "open" they are. They fear that you can and will bolt, even if you lose some data (the first time). Data portability is recognized by the Googles and Microsofts as hugely important, shouldn't it be huge to all of us, too?

Because as we move to always-on social interactions across all we do on the Web, what we do socially online may begin to outweigh what we do socially offline. For some of us this is already true. What distinguishes us as online or offline is blurred, and I believe will grow more so and any difference will become irrelevant.

I am social, therefore I am social. It will not matter how or where. Yet online, the fabric of control over my social universe is more under the influence of the User Terms of Agreement than anything else. Will I lose any part at all of the personal freedoms won by my ancestors when I move my social activities online?

What defines any person by what they do online -- is this a business agreement based on User Terms of Agreement or something more defined by centuries-old social contracts and mores? Does freedom trump user agreements?

When would a concept like human freedom trump any user agreement, even if it is well documented in Delaware courts? Am I free to take my social graph data, that which defines me as me, with me anywhere online because it's an inalienable right? If so, I should not need any OpenSocial standards. It's self-frickin-evident! I should not need it in the User Terms of Agreement because it's long established as precedent.

But here's the rub that came to the surface this week when Microsoft crossed the Rubicon in the Web world with Live Search Cashback.

If users can and will assert that their social graph information is theirs by virtue of their culturally endowed freedom as a human, then what about their "commerce graph?" Who you are by what you buy is not too much different than who you are by whom you associate with. Is commerce social, or is being social commerce?

My social graph contains my personal meta data and my index of contacts, their context to me, and what actually defines me as a social creature. My commerce graph exists too, it's on Amazon, Walmart.com, and dozens of other vendors that know me by how I shop, learn, peruse, compare and perhaps buy. If I search as part of the shopping process then my commerce graph is on Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft (mostly on Google). I do commerce through my social activities, and I may want a social network with those I buy from and sell to.

All this user intentions and activities information is related and should not be separated. I should be able to mix and match my data regardless of the server. I reached those servers through my own device and browser, I made those clicks and punched those keys on my machine before they showed up on someone else's. I own my actions as a free human.

Microsoft is now finding ways to build out a business model via Live Search Cashback (with more to come no doubt) that takes your commerce graph and in essence, sells or barters it to the sellers of goods and services. I'm not saying this is in any way bad, or unproductive. It seems a logical outcome of all that has preceded it online. I expect others to follow suit.

But it does have me wondering. Who owns my commerce graph? Isn't it connected to my social graph? And if Microsoft can make money off of it, why can't I? Can I only make money off of my commerce graph when I use only a certain provider's services and only through its partners? If so, then it's not really my commerce graph. I'm only as free as the User Terms of Agreement say.

If my social graph is mine, and I can move and use it freely, then I surely will want the same to be true for my commerce graph (or any other user pattern graph). This is an essential unalienable right, but I think I want it in writing.

So, please, in order for any of us progeny of Western Civilization to use any of these burgeoning online services, can we have all of this freedom business spelled out clearly in the User Terms of Agreement?

Let's make it the first line item for all online agreements from now on: "Dear User, You are a human and you are free and so that also pertains to everything you do on our Web sites and services."

Until we have technical standards or neutral agencies to route and offer our control over our own use data, then we should all insist on better User Terms of Agreement, those that spell out the obvious. We are free, our data is ours, we should be able to control it.