Were he alive today and busy defining matters of self, the philosopher Descartes might have rationally proposed: I'm digital; therefore I am. And who could argue with that?
From mobile social status updates, to apps that silently but persistently report our phone's location, we are all contributing fragments of our digital selves and furthering the digital evolution of self. In short, we are all becoming digital by default. This process creates a digital treasure-trove of personal data rapidly adding to the vast amount of personal information that used to be held in private and inaccessible corporate databases, but is now becoming more public. A quick glance through the small print of the terms and conditions for your credit card, your health insurance or supermarket loyalty card will highlight the issue. Over the past 10 years we have all, quietly, grown a digital reflection that is distributed across the databases of a plethora of different apps, websites, Internet services, government departments and traditional commercial companies. While the media frenzy about security service snooping continues to build, and the Silicon Valley tech giants weigh in against Government breaking the trust of its citizens, we're all willingly surrendering our personal information to private corporations and technology companies without a second thought.
Concurrently, the Internet has only just starting to fulfil its potential to massively and positively impact humanity. It's a ubiquitous and equitable provider of knowledge, information and transparency to all. It's a connector bringing together disparate communities across the globe. Is it any wonder we love it so. Yet underpinning this mass dissemination of information and friction-free connectivity is the default Internet business model. All major Internet services (e-mail, entertainment, video calls, social media, encyclopaedias) are free at the point of use, whether the user is in Azerbaijan, Angola or Austin Texas.
Advertising primarily pays for these services, which are dramatically improving all of our lives for the better. Commercial enterprises pay to be able to reach us with their message and in return we all get amazing and free services. A perfect model. Well, almost.
There's an old marketing adage that 50% of advertising is ineffective - but it's hard to know which half. Since the mid 1990's advertisers have envisioned that Internet advertising will eventually enable the industry to become hyper efficient and eradicate this '50%' problem. To be 100% effective, the advertising message needs to be perfectly targeted at the recipient. In turn, perfect targeting requires gathering 'perfect data' about the people that are receiving the advertising.
In the last few years the arrival of 'Real Time Bidding' technology to the Internet Advertising industry has enabled advertising messages to finally be better matched, in real time, to the eyes looking at a web page. But just whose eyes are they?
Enter 'Big Data'. Gathering and aggregating ever-growing volumes of personal information on individuals to enable advertisers to target us with appropriate messages solves the identification problem. Hence, the market for personal data has exploded. The New York Times estimates this new industry was already worth over $2Bn in 2012 in the US alone. This has encouraged any corporation that 'owns' our personal information (credit cards, airlines, banks, ISP's, credit checking agencies, retailers, telcos) to seek to turn that data into a healthy new revenue stream, most often without our explicit consent. Data Suppliers, hold petabytes of detailed, personal customer data that the advertising industry will, understandably, pay very good money for. Data Brokers buy, aggregate and resell that data to fulfil a market need - and in return you get better advertising, hopefully.
It works, kind of. The money and personal data flows fine, but the system is very leaky, highly inaccurate and still hugely inefficient. For the advertisers and Internet publishers it's an acceptable short-term fix.
However, in the rush to connect the digital pipes and keep the Internet model running, the industry has forgotten who provides the fuel. If the Internet is formed and shaped around the needs of people, surely those same people should have the ultimate say in how their personal data is being used across the Internet to enable it to work? The personal digital information scattered around the Internet and which fuels the Internet, is ours. If we are all to be the ultimate beneficiaries rather than be digital slaves, we must all have a fundamental right to own our digital self.
As obvious as this 'right to self' may sound, there's currently no obvious organisation able to champion the cause on a global scale.
By their nature, regional and national Governments can't come up with a solution to a global situation. Initiatives are piecemeal and fragmented with disparate objectives (for example Cameron's law, California, European Union legislation). The Snowden revelations have unfortunately further undermined trust in Governments ability to safeguard our personal data.
The advertising industry is comprised of too many competing interests to act decisively, even if consumer participation is in their own best interest. Any cooperation is likely to be resisted as self-regulation rather than being embraced as enabling radical new efficiencies and a better advertising experience for consumers.
Internet standards bodies such as the W3C are designed to set standards about the technical infrastructure of the Internet rather than on the human users of that infrastructure. Finally, as they currently harvest and trade our personal data themselves, Internet publishers such as Facebook, Google and Amazon are poorly positioned to offer an independent and pro-consumer solution.
For the people who use the Internet, this lack of an obvious 'right to self' champion is the most serious problem that the Internet faces.
But there is reason for hope. The commercial Internet has already proved to be the most potent innovator in our history. With traditional players in the advertising ecosystem unable to provide an answer, the market is ripe for a new breed of digital identity advocacy, organisations that could provide commercial solutions to the problem of identity ownership on behalf of the owners, digital citizens. We hope to be one of the first of many to activate our 'right to self', and perhaps aptly, the Internet itself will solve the largest problem facing its future.