Who owns “you” online?

There’s a battle going on for your online soul. 2012 will be a year where the good guys take some important steps forward in that battle.

Mitchell Baker and Ben Adidas posts on online identity and what Mozilla is doing to empower users are important reading for anyone who cares about where the web is headed.

As Mitchell notes, all of us are now creating and sharing more and more of our personal data online. This opens exciting possibilities, but also serious questions: How do you protect and empower yourself in the cloud? Who can you trust? And who ultimately owns the online version of “you?”

Who makes the rules? The architecture of “you”

You are valuable. Your online data, decisions and content are worth something to yourself and others. As thinkers like Ben Cerveny have pointed out, each of us leaves a trail behind us as we travel through the “luminous bath” that is the web. This data says something about you, leaving a set of footprints others can potentially follow. Your data is unique, and it has value.

So who makes the rules around how your data gets used? As Mitchell writes:

The ability of big data and cloud service providers to monitor, log, store, use, correlate and sell information about who we are and what we do has huge implications for society and for individuals.

Right now there’s no convenient way for me to share information about myself and maintain control over that information. I share information about myself by putting it someplace where someone else makes all the rules.

This is bigger than just Google and Facebook. The question of “who makes the rules” is a more fundamental question about the architecture of user data and the Internet itself.

This architecture boils down to some fundamental design questions about how your data is shared. Do you decide, setting the rules once, then pushing them out across your online experience? Or are you instead subject to a confusing mishmash of different rules for your data, each set by whatever application or service you happen to be using at the time?

Putting you at the center

Mozilla believes you need to be at the center of your online experience, with the option to store your data in the cloud and then set the rules for how it it accessed across the web. This means you get to set the rules, instead of other sites deciding for you. Mitchell writes:

To really help people with the way we use and share data today, Mozilla will need to offer people the choice of storing data in the cloud in a way that allows services to access it with your permission. This will be a new thing for Mozilla. It will involve new challenges.  It’s important that we take these on and address them well. If we develop an offering that handles user data in the cloud properly we will help ensure choice and user sovereignty in new areas of online life.

Identity that answers to no one but you

Concretely, as Ben Adidad explains, this means Mozilla will ramp up work on a host of “user-centric” (I think of them as “you-centric”) services this year, including an innovative approach to identity, a mobile web-based operating system, and an app store. As a non-profit answerable only to you, we’re in a unique position to take this on, without ulterior motives or fine print. Mitchell writes:

No other organization has both the ability to do something totally focused on user sovereignty rather than financial profit, and the ability to have wide impact. A Mozilla presence in the cloud will allow us to to fulfill our mission in important new areas of online life.

The web you deserve

A web that recognizes “you,” knows who you are, and can respond accordingly is an exciting thing — so long as you’re the one in control of the experience.

That requires a trusted, ideally non-profit broker to help you manage your identity and set the rules for your data — with no ulterior motives or fine print.

This is different than the “bait and switch” model that now seems common in the cloud, luring us in with shiny services and products, only to reveal hidden costs, nasty fine print, or a cavalier approach to our personal data down the road.

The web — and you — deserve better. I’m excited that Mozilla is leading that charge in 2012.


  • “Mozilla believes you need to be at the center of your online experience, with the option to store your data in the cloud and then set the rules for how it it accessed across the web.”

    I fear Mozilla is missing the point. People want to share certain stuff with certain associates. Our phones and routers are more than powerful enough to do this without ANYONE ELSE being involved in the exchange, and then any HTML5 browser can assemble a kick-ass timeline/circles/comments UI from that stuff. How did we get so confused that this gets sucked into “the cloud”, inevitably run by third parties who have to pay their bills somehow?

    BrowserID is worthwhile, but if Mozilla wants to “lead the charge”… Figure out how to run FreedomBox and Diaspora in B2G and/or in Firefox. Take a look at Opera Unite, it looks like they’re way ahead of you in browser-to-browser sharing. Figure out how to use BrowserID to make a DNS-like “contact openmatt’s browser”. Explore what the UX might be for browsers exchanging stuff when each end may or may not have a person at the computer. Etc. Good luck!

    • Thanks for this, Tim. I just read your post and love it.

      It’s interesting that we both zero in on the concept of the online or digital “you.”

      To me, words like “privacy and identity” just don’t fully reach most people down in the gut. Those are abstractions.

      But the question of “who own you?” is more fundamental, and gets to the heart of it fast. In a language your friends or your mum can easily understand.

      You express it really well here in your post (paraphrasing):

      “You may think you have a ‘privacy problem,’ but technically you have a bigger issue — an ‘identity problem.’ A true “online identity crisis,” as it were, since online privacy is a subset of ‘online identity.’

      You can boil down the entire multifaceted online privacy issue to a single statement and question:

      * There is a ‘real-you’ and a ‘digital-you.’
      * ‘Who owns the digital-you?’

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