The idea of data as a gift, and the act of sharing data as an exchange of a gift, has data ethics and privacy implications for product and service design.
Recent work by Kadija Ferryman and Nick Seaver on data as a gift in the last year addressed this concept more broadly and brought it to my attention. Ferryman, in her piece Reframing Data as a Gift, took the angle of data sharing in the context of health data and open data policies. Seaver, in his piece Return of the Gift, approached it from the angle of the gift economy and big data. Both make great points that are relevant in the context of data collection and ethics, especially as it relates to data security and privacy more generally.
Ferryman introduces the concept brilliantly:
What happens when we think about data as a gift? Well, first, we move away from thinking about data in the usual way, as a thing, as a repository of information and begin to think of it as an action. Second, we see that there is an obligation to give back, or reciprocate when data is given. And third, we can imagine that giving a lot of data has the potential to create tension.
When you frame the information that we “voluntarily” share with services as a gift, the dynamics of the exchange shift. We can’t truly share data with digital services—that implies that we retain ultimate ownership over the data. You can take back something after you share it with them. But you can’t do that with your personal data. Because you can’t take back your data after you share it, you can more accurately conceptualize the exchange of data with digital services as a gift. Something you give, and which cannot be returned to you (at least not in its original form).
Data as a gift creates an expectation or obligation for a return, Seaver makes clear. Problem is, when we’re sharing data on the internet, we don’t always know exactly what we’re giving and what we’re getting.
The gift exchange might be based on the expectation that your data is used to provide the service to you. And the more data, the better the service (you might expect). For this reason, it seems easier to share specific types of data with specific services. For example, it’s easier for me to answer questions about my communication or sexual preferences with a company if I think I’m going to get a boyfriend out of the exchange, and sharing that data might make it more likely.
But what happens if a company stops seeing (or doesn’t ever see) an exchange of data as a gift exchange, and starts using the data you gift it for whatever it wants in order to make a profit? By violating the terms of the gift exchange, the company violates the implicit social contract you made with the company when you gifted your data. This is where privacy comes in. Gifting information for one purpose and having it used for other unexpected purposes feels like a violation of privacy. Because it is.
A violation of the gift exchange of data is a privacy violation, but it feels like the norm now. It’s common in terms of services to be informed that after you gift your data to a service, it is no longer yours and the company can do with it what it wants.
Products and services are designed so that you can’t pay for them even if you want to. You must share certain amounts of data, and if you don’t, the product doesn’t work. As Andrew Lewis put it, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” We didn’t end up there because we are that dedicated to free things on the Internet. We were lured into gifting our data in exchange for specific, limited services, and the companies realized later that the data was the profitable part of the exchange.
Nick Seaver refers to this as “The obligation to give one’s data in exchange for the use of “free” services,” and it is indeed an obligation. To avoid gifting your data to services that you might not want to enter into that type of exchange, you have very few ways to interact with the modern Internet. You’d likely also have to have a lot of money, in order to enter into a paid transaction rather than a gift exchange with a company in return for services.
For those of us working in product or service development, we can use this perspective and consider the social contract of the exchange of data gifts.
- Consider whether the service you offer is on par with the amount of data you ask people to gift to you.
- Do I really need to share my Facebook likes with Tinder to get a superior match?
- Consider whether the service you offer can deliver on the obligations and expectations created by the gift exchange.
- Is your service rewarding enough and trustworthy enough to where I’ll save my credit card information?
- Consider whether you can design your service to allow people to choose the data that they want to gift to you.
- What is the minimum-possible data gift that a person could exchange with your service, and still feel as though their gift was reciprocated?
- Consider the type of gift exchange that you design if you force people to gift you a specific type or amount of data.
- Is that an expectation or obligation that you want to create?
When you view each piece of information that a person shares with you as a gift, it’s harder to misuse that information.
Note: Thanks to Clive Thompson for bringing Kadija Ferryman’s piece to my attention, and Nick Seaver for sharing his piece Return of the Gift with me on Twitter.