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    How App Companies Are Turning Privacy into a Commodity

    Written by

    DJ Pangburn


    Image:Ryoji Ikeda, Creative Commons

    Omlet, a new privacy-based social media platform launching today at SXSW, has an idea. They call it the "privacy economy." It's a notion that could really only be incubated in Silicon Valley's minor league, but it emerges from deep within the American capitalist psyche: find a problem, then make some money off of it. But, should we really be thinking of a human right as some sort of economy to be exploited for profit?

    First, a bit on the app itself, and what it does right: Omlet, developed by the Stanford School of Engineering's MobiSocial Lab, is a free instant-messaging platform, enabled with in-app purchasing. Described as a "distributed semantic file system," Omlet's data storage is decentralized; meaning, no one network holds the data. Omlet users are instead given control of their data, and are thus able to store it on any cloud storage service of their choosing.

    In other words, anything users do on the app, whether its sharing photos and liking them, is sent directly to the user's cloud storage. Omlet does not store this information. This aspect of Omlet is worthy of high praise considering how the NSA leaks reminded people just how important this little detail is. But, MobiSocial Lab's idea of a "privacy economy" just isn't as inspiring.

    According to a Stanford press release, "The privacy economy is based on the premise that people will be willing to pay a modest upfront price to join social networks that guarantee the integrity of their personal data." This echoes a recent study by University of Colorado-Boulder economists that found people would pay $5.06 for the sweet nectar of privacy; findings that probably set Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial minds ablaze with dollar signs. 

    Of course, Omlet isn't leading the charge in this privacy economy. Plenty of other companies are marketing products and services—phones, messaging apps, cloud services, telephone apps, etc.—in an attempt to make a buck on the post-NSA leaks privacy zeitgeist. The high-end Blackphone, co-created by legendary cypherpunk Phil Zimmerman and retailing for $629, is one such product. But, just as many appmakers don't seem to be in it for the money, such as Whisper Systems (TextSecure and RedPhone), Wickr, and even Snapchat (or, at least until they start turning a buck).

    It's great that MobiSocial Lab is trying to free app users from the prison of data monetization. This is a worthy goal, as is their personalized cloud storage option. From a certain perspective, it's easy to see the attraction in thinking of privacy as an economy. America and, increasingly the rest of the world, tends to see things—even traditionally civil issues like privacy—in terms of market forces, not as an opportunity for civil society to craft consensus solutions. The privacy economy essentially uses the weapons of free market capitalism—which created the data monetization market in the first place—against itself.

    It resembles the Situationist strategy of détournement, which translates to "hijacking" and "rerouting." Still, there is something rather depressing about an economy being necessary to counter data monetization and the state's data mining that suckles at its teat. As much as Omlet's developers should be commended for being creative, their privacy economy notion seems a lot like an admission that the fight for privacy is finished unless we fork over money.

    In thinking of the issue in this way, privacy ceases to be a human right, and becomes instead a commodity and privilege for only those willing and aware enough to pay for it. That people will pay the bargain basement price of $5 for this privilege is no excuse.