What Is Your “Data Soul” Worth?

Last week, it was reported that a Dutch student (Shawn Buckles) held an online auction to sell a bundle of his personal information because he felt that most of his “personal” information was no longer owned by him due to his past online activities. He pointed to many online user agreements that he felt transferred his rights to various companies that collected and stored his data. Although there were more than 40 bidders, the student reportedly sold his “data soul” for about € 350 (about $485 (US)) to The Next Web, a technology news company that plans to use it at an upcoming conference on privacy.  So what did The Next Web acquire?  According to Mr. Buckles’ website, he sold his “personal profile; location track records; train track records; personal calendar; e-mails; online conversations; consumer preferences; thoughts; and browsing history.” This stunt does not appear to be the efforts of a starving student grasping for spending money. Rather, he appears to have an agenda as he also posted what he describes as a “Privacy Pamphlet” on his auction site in which he proclaims, among other things, that “[o]ur privacy is at stake.” While it is certainly not earthshattering that online companies routinely collect our data for various reasons, Mr. Buckles has touched on a sensitive issue.   More and more generations are accessing the Internet and as such, people need to be properly informed about the amount of information that is being collected about their online activities.  Privacy remains an important priority for the FTC, but the Internet is the wild west and the agency has limited resources to monitor it. While I can appreciate Mr. Buckles’ point, I don’t necessarily agree with the method in which he conveyed his message.  For example, I wonder if he redacted the recipients’ contact information from his e-mails or online conversations.  If not, then didn’t he commit the same sin that he complains of in his online missive- he used someone’s online information for his personal use? Hopefully, he took steps to address this concern and obtained their consent and/or redacted their identifying information.

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