On The Ownership of Social Media Information

Part of the problem of social media is how all the information posted through it (or the metadata) becomes the property of the platform. But a 21st reorientation of property rights in regard to the Internet could change that:

Still, there is a problem with traditional antitrust policy when looked at through the lens of network externalities: It focuses only on consumers’ benefits from competition. But consumers love Google and Facebook since they do not pay a dime for their services.

What many users do not fully appreciate is that they do pay for these services, in the form of very valuable information. And those who appreciate this cost have no choice: There is no major search engine that does not store our past searches or collect information on our activities, and there is no significant social media platform that does not retain our preferences. That is the cost of using these technologies. Lack of competition also means lack of choice, which is ultimately lack of freedom. But what can be done?

For a 21st-century problem, we suggest a 21st-century solution: a reallocation of property rights via legislation to provide more incentives to compete. In fact, the idea is not new. Patent law, for example, attributes the right to an invention to the company a scientist works for, to motivate companies to invest in research and development. Similarly, in the mobile industry, most countries have established that a cellphone number belongs to a customer, not the mobile phone provider. This redefinition of property rights (in jargon called “number portability”) makes it easier to switch carriers, fostering competition by other carriers and reducing prices for consumers.

The same is possible in the social network space. It is sufficient to reassign to each customer the ownership of all the digital connections that she creates — what is known as a “social graph.” If we owned our own social graph, we could sign into a Facebook competitor — call it MyBook — and, through that network, instantly reroute all our Facebook friends’ messages to MyBook, as we reroute a phone call.