Why personal agency matters more than personal data

 Sep 16, 2018 1:00 PM
by Derek Lackey

Written by: Doc Searls - Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard. Jun 23

When Archimedes said “Give me a place to stand and I can move the world, he was talking about agency. You have no agency on the Web if you are always the second party, agreeing to terms and policies set by websites. You are Archimedes if you are the first party, setting your own terms and policies. The scale you get with that is One 2 World. The place you stand is on the Web itself — and the Internet below it. Both were designed to give each of us whole-world leverage. We forgot that when we launched Web 1.0 and 2.0. Let’s make Web 3.0 the one that works for each of us, and not just for the sites of the world and their personal data grabbing partners.


Lately a lot of thought, work and advocacy has been going into looking at personal data as a fungible commodity: one that can be made scarce and bought, sold, traded and so on. Good though this might be, it also steers attention away from a far more important issue it would be best to solve first:personal agency.

I see two reasons why personal agency matters more than personal data.

The first reason is that we have far too little agency in the networked world. That’s because we settled, way back in 1995 (when e-commerce and ISPs took off), on a model for websites called client-server, which should have been called calf-cow or slave-master, because by design the individual—a mere “user”—is always the weaker party.

Fortunately the Net’s and the Web’s base protocols remain mostly peer-to-peer, by design. We can still build on those.

Perspective: it’s early. In the history of business, much less civilization, twenty-three years is not a long time. In that span we’ve had Web 1.0 (client-server, static websites) and Web 2.0 (social media, service gigantism, forests of silos with separate logins, and finally surveillance capitalism through tracking based advertising, aka adtech). The latter is now reaching its end, thanks to the GDPR. (See GDPR will pop the adtech bubble.)

A critical start toward Web 3.0 (nicely laid out already by @matteozago in Why the Web 3.0 Matters and you should know about it), is making each of us the first party rather than the second when we deal with the sites, services, companies and apps of the world — and doing that at scale across all of them.

Think about how much more simple and sane it will be for websites to accept our terms and our privacy policies, rather than to force each of us, all the time, to accept their terms, all expressed in their different ways, which (their terms usually say) they can change any time they like. (And think about what a pain it is for the sites and services of the world as well.)

Getting sites to agree to our own personal terms and policies is not a stretch, because that’s exactly what we have in the way we deal with each other in the physical world. For example, the clothes that we wear are privacy technologies. We also have both norms and laws that discourage others from sticking their hands inside our clothes without permission.

The fact that adtech plants tracking beacons on our naked digital selves and follows us like marked animals across the digital frontier may be a norm for now, but it is also morally wrong, massively rude and now illegal (at least in spirit) under the GDPR.

We can easily create...

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