The term zero-sum seems to be tossed around more and more frequently, with the inevitable lessening of its impact perhaps, but more importantly a clouding of its meaning or worse, assigning its use incorrectly or in a misleading manner. Merriam Webster describes “zero-sum” as:

  • of, relating to, or being a situation (such as a game or relationship) in which a gain for one side entails a corresponding loss for the other side.

While the definition and use of zero-sum seems to indicate a simple “either-or” or two-sided argument, through manipulation, and sometimes sleight-of-hand, some actors in the internet privacy conversation seem to add multiple and conflicting arguments. Consumers have often been led to believe they have only two options: 1) to share their personal data; or, 2) allow the app owner to access and use their data. In fact, there are more restrictive options attached here, most aggravating being that often, users may be blocked from using the app or site if they do not agree to allow access to all their personal data. And there is no effective route offered to eventually re-claim that personal data after the consumer finishes the relationship (buys merchandise, for instance). Also, if the consumer does not allow personal data to be captured, that person will not be given many “extras” that would otherwise be available, such as recommended products, being able to ‘one-click’ orders or re-order item…become a “known customer” in other words.

Some of these restrictions are understandable: The seller needs to have and retain some personal data in order to honor warranties, address purchase fulfillment issues such as lack of delivery, or to just be able to build customer loyalty by offering perks such as instant recognition when a customer logs into the site again. Those are marketing tools and sometimes requirements (as in warranty fulfillment or returns) that customers understand. But they are not informed of another, dark side of personal data retention that I’ll limit this post to, which is basically the monetization of their data.

The first issue that makes this a zero-sum transaction only on one side, is in not allowing users into the site if they don’t give up all rights or ownership to their privacy. As that sentence indicates, the user has only two options – give up personal data to gain access, or go home. Users really don’t want zero-sum on their side; this is documented throughout the web, by the almost unbelievable amount of data transactions consumers and users perform not just every day or every minute, but every second for goods and services, for searches and information, for everything imaginable. Users want to be able to come back to sites over time, they want to save searches and build histories of data collected, they want to use social media…on and on. But most users, when they think about it all, would say they want their personal data at the very least to be protected. It is unlikely they want it to be shared, but then many users have shown they really don’t care…for this article, we just can’t address that lapse in judgment. Users want access accompanied by a certain level of certainty that their personal data, and their personal or professional lives, will not be corrupted. As the GDPR movement has shown, users also do actually want the right to be forgotten.

But these mixed desires, which certainly aren’t outlandish, reflect the non-zero-sum side of the equation. The fact is that marketers or app owners are not gaining just the customer’s business…they are gaining, and gaming, the customer’s data, to use in many ways, not all of them exemplary. There are two main acts by many app owners that unbalance the relationship:

  • Using consumer personal data for future targeting, and;
  • The hidden sale of personal data to third parties

Google was the first, and by far the most successful, company to create a whole new world within the internet, when the company created the ability to integrate huge amounts of inter-connected personal data into one data set, then build profiles of individuals that allowed Google to not just say, “We know who you are and what you’ve done, but we can predict what you will do…and now can direct and perhaps dictate what you will do.” All of this has been built without user knowledge or assent; there were no restrictions on how this could be done or how the data can be used…and still are none for the most part. Users were “opted-in” through their first and only choice as a zero-sum decision; but Google had multiple choices, and multiple uses for this data. They could destroy it, keep it and not use it, or keep it and utilize it in ways known and not yet known. And they could have told consumers about it, and requested authorization or <gasp!> compensation for a valued product – the user’s information. But they did not, and so ensured a zero-sum equation on one side with a non-zero-sum equation on their side.

Hidden sale of personal data is pretty much the same in terms of who decided what to do, and the variety and number of choices each side had. Users don’t know their data is being monetized, or sold to third parties, so they remain at the zero-sum equation of either entering a relationship with the app owner or closing out of the site. The app owner, again, has protected the ability to create their own ‘ownership’ of the data, which is another argument for another day. But they have created the ability to perform numerous acts with personal data.

The upshot of this for the moment is that marketers in particular, but app and site owners in general, are posing the entire internet privacy as a zero-sum game. Their argument is that they can only operate if given automatic and almost complete right to access and use consumer/user personal data as they see fit…to become the new “owner” of that data as soon as the consumer or user enters into a relationship. And they argue that the transfer of that ownership is a zero-sum decision on the consumer’s part – if the consumer doesn’t agree from the outset to give up ownership, game over and the user leaves the site. Yet the app owner or marketer assumes non-zero-sum rights to use the data in any fashion, including monetization. Because of the risks that have become all too well-known, and the damage that occurs daily to individuals, this ‘game’ has to be re-balanced.

Yes, marketers and sellers of goods and services must be able to operate in a profitable manner, and they have the same right to enjoy the powers of all the new technology to further their business. But the consumer who buys the products or services, the user who utilizes those same technologies for finding information and other activities must have their rights recognized, and their alternatives laid out clearly and in an available manner. The message has to be changed – users and consumers have options; site owners and marketers have to help enhance those options…and openly acknowledge that they exist.