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Roger Clarke's 'Perspectives on Personal Data Markets'

Personal Data Markets: A Matter of Perspective

Review Version of 21 February 2016

Roger Clarke **

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 2015-16

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Abstract

Among the many applications of electronic markets is the trading of personal data. A Special Issue of the journal Electronic Markets addressed that topic in June 2015. This paper reports on a review of the papers in that Issue, together with the further c. 25 relevant articles on privacy-related topics in prior Issues of the journal. The assessment utilised as its primary theoretical lens the notion of 'researcher perspective'.

The EM articles were found to be not merely predominantly conducted from the system sponsor's perspective, but almost exclusively so. Consideration of the concept 'market' leads to the conclusion that contributors to EM have not merely ignored the interests of stakeholders other than their corporate client, but have been so myopic that the effectiveness of their research is undermined.

The study was broadened in order to seek out the antecedents of the IS discipline's tight focus on research from the perspective of system sponsors. This gives rise to concern that the narrowness of thinking evident in the Special Issue and the journal as a whole reflects a malaise within the IS discipline.


Contents


1. Introduction

The motivation for the analysis reported in this paper was the author's negative response to the papers in the Special Issue of Electronic Commerce on personal data markets, in Volume 25, Issue 2 (June 2015). Part of this concern was the heavy bias towards the interests of business enterprises, to the virtual exclusion of the interests of the people whose data is being trafficked. Beyond this public policy issue, however, was discomfort about the conception of the research projects. Surely contemporary information systems demand much more awareness of the broader pictuer than is evident in those papers? And surely electronic markets generally, and particularly those in which the items being traded are personal data, necessarily involve models that encompass all participants, and recognise the existence of all stakeholders?

An analysis was first undertaken of the six papers in the Special Issue, taking into account the basic theory of markets, and the notion of 'researcher perspective'. The first two sections of this paper outline those background theories. The main body of the paper utilises that theoretical base to conduct assessments of each of the five papers in the Special Issue, and the Issue Editors' Preface and closing Position Paper.

Because the findings about the papers are very negative, the analysis was then extended to the full corpus of papers in the journal that are relevant to the topic of personal data markets - about 25 further papers. This led to the conclusion that the pathological symptoms evident in the papers in the Special Issue arise from a systemic infection within the journal as a whole. The scope of the study was accordingly extended to the literature that appears to have shaped the attitudes and approaches of the researchers who have submitted to the journal. This identifies a line of work that commenced in the mid-1960s, that has been continued and articulated, and that represents a malaise at the level of the IS discipline.

The final sections of the paper discuss the implications of the findings of the analysis. It is argued that these are very serious for the people whose data is exploited by corporations, but also for the researchers whose work singlemindedly seeks to advantage those corporations over those people. It is concluded that a critical consideration of researcher perspective is a vital element of quality research in the IS area generally, and especially in research domains such as personal data markets.


2. Electronic Markets and Personal Data

An electronic market or marketspace is a virtual context in which buyers and sellers discover one another and transact business (Schmidt 1993, Rayport & Sviokla 1994, Bakos 1998, Segev et al. 1999, Weill & Vitale 2001). As with its correlates in physical places, an electronic market comprises tradable items, participants, processes that facilitate trading, and infrastructure that supports the participants and the processes (Clarke 2001). Key benefits that any particular instance of a market offers are the ability for buyers and sellers to discover one another, to discover what items are on offer, to develop sufficient confidence to be prepared to conduct the transaction, and to negotiate an agreement. A market may also facilitate the delivery of the goods or performance of the services.

The journal 'Electronic Markets' declares the following working definition of the term 'electronic markets', as guidance not only for its authors, but arguably for the discipline as a whole:

"forms of networked business where multiple suppliers and customers interact for economic purposes within one or among multiple tiers in economic value chains ... In a narrow sense, [electronic markets are] allocation platforms with dynamic price discovery mechanisms involving atomistic relationships [but] in a broader sense, [electronic markets emphasise] longer term relationships and processes for enabling business transactions ... and/or knowledge management" (EM 2016. See also EM 2014).

Markets can adopt multiple forms. One important factor affecting which forms are used in which circumstances is the participants involved. As depicted by Figure 1, the participants include sellers and buyers, sometimes agents for either or both of them, usually service-providers, and possibly an intermediary, usefully referred to as a 'marketspace operator'.

Figure 1: Participants in Electronic Markets

The form of the market also reflects the nature of the tradable items, distinguishing goods from services, physical from digital, and commodities from standard products, customised and customisable items. Another key consideration is the risks that need to be apportioned among the participants, and hence the terms applicable to transactions, and the processes whereby transactions are conducted and settled. Risks are affected by the nature of the exchange. Useful classifications include immediate and direct reciprocity - the mainstream variants being item-for-cash-equivalent and item-for-item (barter) - but also, subscription-based, sponsorship-based, deferred reciprocity, indirect reciprocity, and gift (Schmid 1997, Reck 1997, Clarke 2001).

A crucial function that markets perform is to provide a sufficient basis for confidence among the participants, such that lack of trust does not detract from their intrinsic desire to trade (Kollock 1999, Clarke 2002a, Beckert 2005, Clarke 2006, Clarke 2008a). In many markets, a critical factor is assurance about the seller's capacity to pass to the buyer both a quality item and the desired set of rights in relation to it. This frequently includes the provision of information about the tradable item's provenance. In some markets, possession of the item by a seller is a sufficient basis for trust by the buyer. For example, in a bazaar, 'what you see is what you get', and 'no, I'm not sure where it came from'. In many markets, on the other hand, ownership rather than mere possession is important to buyers. For example, trading in shares and derivatives is dependent upon evidence of ownership (since the 1980s, through share registry entries), and markets for digital images, movies and music are dependent on the basket of rights created by copyright law. Data is problematic, because in many cases it is not subject to intellectual property rights. This shifts the perspective of the participants to other ways of managing the risks relating to item quality, to the legitimacy of the buyer's possession of the item after it has been traded, and to the legitimacy of the various uses to which the buyer might want to put it.

In applying these concepts to the specific case of 'personal data markets', a distinction first needs to be drawn between primary and secondary markets. One form of primary market is where a consumer trades personal data to another party, generally a corporation. In a second form of primary market, an organisation that has created personal data trades it to another party. Examples of originating parties are informants, paparrazzi and investigators (e.g. private detectives, and insurance and law enforcement investigators). However, the range of surveillance mechanisms that generate such data is increasing, as devices that carry people, such as motor vehicles, devices that are carried by people, such as handheld computing equipment, and progressively devices that are worn by people, and inserted into people, generate streams of personal data. A secondary market arises where one party trades to a second party data about a third party that is in its possession but that it neither acquired from the individual concerned nor created.

In principle, in most civilised countries of the world, data that relates to an identifiable person is subject to considerable constraints. Greenleaf (2014, 2015) documents the 109 countries with laws in place in January 2015, and the 102 without - of which 13 had Bills before their Parliament. The most economically and politically significant country that had no significant data protection law at all in place at the time was the PRC, with the only other large countries on the list being Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka.

There are many important qualifications to the bland statement about a country having laws in place. Of particular importance is the USA, which is a renegade in these matters in that, rather than having a generic data protection law, it has hundreds of laws that relate to specific contexts, most of them partial and very weak (Smith 2013). Even in the countries with the strongest protections, generally across Europe but also in distant jurisdictions such as Hong Kong, New Zealand and South Korea, there are large numbers of exemptions and exceptions within the data protection statute, and large numbers of separate legal authorisations in other statutes, which are designed to override or create loopholes in the generic law. Moreover, in many countries the provisions relating to consent, given by the person to whom the data relates, permitting trading in their personal data, are highly unclear and as yet unchallenged, or permit token rather than substantive consent. For an analysis of the elements of meaningful consent, see Clarke (2002b).

Many people and institutions would seriously question the morality of research into effective electronic markets for slave-trading or human-trafficking. This brief review of the notion of electronic markets as applied to personal data suggests that there are also grounds for doubting the legitimacy of the notion of personal data markets. At the very least, it is essential that discussions about personal data markets take into account the issues arising in relation to trust in the tradeable item, the legitimacy of trading it, and the legitimacy of each of the various actions that might be taken with the data once it has been acquired.


3. Researcher Perspective

This paper's primary purpose is to assess published research in relation to personal data markets. The approach adopted depends heavily on the notion of researcher perspective. As this is not yet an established element in discussions of research methods, it is necessary to provide an overview of the concept and an indication of its significance.

A key point of difference that was brought to IS research by interpretivism is that "the phenomenon of interest [is] examined ... from the perspective of the participants" (Orlikowski & Baroudi 1991 p.5). However, this is better expressed as 'from the perspectives of the participants', in order to avoid the implication that all participants share the same view. This has enabled the rigour of what is commonly referred to as 'positivist' research to be complemented by work that achieves greater insights, particularly in contexts that involve multiple participants with conflicting interests.

Very little of the literature discusses the extent to which the idea of 'the perspectives of the participants' affects the conduct of research. This author has argued in Clarke (2015, 2016) that:

In each research project, at least one 'researcher perspective' is adopted, whether expressly or implicitly, and whether consciously or unconsciously.

The researcher perspective influences the conception of the research and the formulation of the research questions, and hence the research design, the analysis and the results.

Each particular perspective is specific, not universal.

Because the interpretation of phenomena depends on the perspective adopted, the adoption of any single researcher perspective creates a considerable risk of drawing inappropriate conclusions.

The notion of researcher perspective is distinct from the concepts of object of study and unit of study: a researcher observes phenomena (object of study) at a particular level of granularity (unit of study) utilising a body of theory (through a lens), but from a particular viewpoint (researcher perspective).

One way to distinguish alternative researcher perspectives is on the basis of the dimension on which they lie. The economic dimension is concerned with resource allocation through the actions of enterprises. The largest players are joint-stock companies / corporations - an artefact conceived for that purpose in the 13th century, developed through the following centuries, and further articulated in the 19th century - together with the executive arm of government, acting through individual government agencies. However, individuals are also economic actors - as consumers, employees and unincorporated enterprises. The social dimension is concerned with individuals in their other capacities - as citizens and members of communities. The environmental dimension comprises such viewpoints as those of local ecologies, the biosphere and the troposphere.

It is common for IS researchers to adopt the perspective of a participant in an information system - such as the companies that are connected to it, or the employees and perhaps customers of those companies who use it. However, the concept of researcher perspective also extends to non-participating parties who are affected by the information system, such as the families of employees, people who live in the vicinity of a plant or campus that depends on the system, and the people whose data is stored in it. A person in the last of those categories - such as those whose data is in tenancy databases, consumer credit bureaux, and criminal intelligence collections - is usefully referred to as a 'usee' (Clarke 1992). The term 'stakeholder' is often used in relation to information systems. It may be used so as to refer only to those participants in a system that have significant market or institutionaly power; but it is most appropriately used to encompass all of the categories discussed earlier in this paragraph.

A particular participant that features prominently in IS research is referred to by this author as 'the system sponsor'. By that term is meant the organisation that develops, implements or adapts a system, process or intervention, or for whose benefit the initiative is undertaken. In some cases, the system sponsor may be a cluster or category of organisations.

Research conducted to date provides evidence of a strong bias in IS research towards the economic dimension, towards single-perspective research, and towards the system sponsor's perspective (Clarke 2015, 2016).

Single-perspective research is straightforward to undertake. However, better quality results may be achieved in other ways. For example, dual-perspective research (e.g. considering the interests of both an employer and its employees, or of both the seller and buyer sides of a market) may enable each stakeholder to better understand the attitudes and needs of the other. Moreover, some forms of research cannot be undertaken without adopting a multi-perspective approach. For example, highly integrated industries such as automotive manufacturing and international trade depend on complex, multi-participant systems. Effective understanding of, and guidance for the design of, such systems simply cannot be achieved other than by means of multi-perspective research (Wrigley et al. 1994, Cameron & Clarke 1996, Cameron 2007).


4. Personal Data Markets in EM

The motivation for this paper was the discomfort felt by the author on reading the papers in the Special Issue on Personal Data Markets in EM 25, 2 (June 2015). This section evaluates those paper on the basis of the preceding discussions of electronic markets and researcher perspective. It then expands the analysis to encompass other papers in EM's now 750-strong library which are concerned in some way with personal data.

4.1 The Special Issue

The Special Issue comprises four contributed and one invited paper, complemented by a Position Paper by the Issue Editors. It is preceded by a Preface by the Issue Editors, but also a relevant Editorial by the Journal Editors. This section first considers, in order, the Preface and the five papers, and then the Issue Editors' Position Paper.

The Preface to the Special Issue (Spiekermann et al. 2015a) notes that the Issue "is placed at the intersection of [the] seemingly opposing poles of privacy and personal data markets". It asks about "the legitimacy and ethicality of [relevant] business models". It seeks "ways to manage and protect privacy within those markets". In terms of the discussion in the previous section, the Issue Editors therefore appear to have at least sought, and perhaps even to have assembled, a group of papers that take into account the social as well as the economic dimension, and that seek to balance the perspectives of the buyers of personal data and of the individuals to whom the data relates.

The first paper, Roeber et al. (2015), builds on a stream of research associated with Acquisti & Gross (2006), by applying conjoint analysis as a means of evaluating how much (or, more relevantly, how little) consumers appear to value their data when offered money for it. This paper, in common with its predecessors in the area, is entirely dedicated to producing "insights for private and public institutions" and identifying "implications that are relevant for organizations and policy makers" (p. 105). The individuals whose data is being traded are recognised as an object of study; but their interests are relevant only because of their impact on the interests of the corporations trading in the data. The manipulative nature of the work is underlined by the authors' advocacy of an outcome that the authors assert to be"more beneficial for organizations and consumers alike", but that takes the form of "overall increased sharing".

Gkatzelis et al. (2005) aim to "identify the optimal way to bundle demand so as to minimize the expected payment to a risk averse seller" (p. 110). These authors are also embedded in a stream of research that is entirely manipulative of consumer behaviour, aimed at achieving consent by a person to the use of private data for the cheapest possible price. The authors' targets expressly include not only sensitive data about viewing habits, but also highly sensitive data gathered by hospitals for the purpose of medical treatment. No consideration is given to the interests of the consumers whose data the techniques are intended to enveigle out of their control. It is particularly noteworthy that the literature on which the authors draw is not from the consumer marketing discipline, which might be expected to exhibit an inherent bias to the interests of marketers. Rather the cited papers are from various parts of the computing literature. The authors mention in passing that they are considering "a scenario where buyers pay for access to raw anonymized data" (p. 110). However, they assume away re-identifiability, and expressly exclude the approach of adding unbiased noise to the data-set. Given the intensity of the health care data that is of central interest to such techniques, the assumption that the data is anonymous is unwarranted.

Heimbach et al. (2015) propose and evaluate the priming of recommender systems using personal data purloined from elsewhere. It is blithely assumed that every online merchant's web-site "has access to rather rich, complete and up-to-date data which users provide voluntarily and implicitly" (p. 127). The assumption is not only wrong morally - because the users were merely logging into the shop using their Facebook account, and very few would have contemplated the wholesale use of all of their Facebook data by the merchant - but the assumption is very probably also wrong at law, perhaps even in the highly permissive US context. Again, the large majority of the stream of research on which the work builds is in the computing disciplines, and it is almost entirely devoid of knowledge of or concern about consumer interests, to the extent of ignoring consumer protection laws.

Rayna et al. (2015) presents a mathematical analysis that evaluates the effects of 'first-degree price discrimination' for digital music, by which is meant a different price for each consumer, based on perfect knowledge by the seller of each consumer's willingness to pay. It makes the bold claim that this would be "mutually advantageous and both buyers and sellers gain" (p.139). However, the interests it reflects are those of the corporation selling access to music, and the presumptions are made that perfect knowledge by the seller is achievable (by making consumers disclose or provide access to personal data), whereas the buyer does not need to know anything about the corporation, let alone have perfect knowledge. A market design more biassed to the interests of one side of the market than this notion is difficult to imagine.

The fifth paper in the Special Issue, which was invited rather than contributed, is Maguire et al. (2015). This outlines "an interoperable context-aware metadata-based architecture that allows permissions and policies to be bound to data". This bears more than a passing resemblance to the original conception of what became the Platform for Preferences (P3P), a W3C initiative of 1997-2003. P3P failed because it was reduced from a two-sided architecture to a mere channel for publishing corporate policies (Clarke 2001). On the one hand, it might seem ironic that the reduction in scope was a result of interference with the design by a few large corporate members of W3C, including Microsoft - who are the employers of the authors. On the other hand, the neutering of the architecture is sustained by the authors' proposal. Even if their proposal were implemented, it would merely create the capability for "user permissions and policies [to] be permanently associated with data, enabling any entity to handle that data in a way that is consistent with a user's wishes" (p. 155). In other words, it would enable the publishing of consumers' policies, but it would not in any way enforce the consents and denials that the metadata contains. So it fails just as badly as P3P - an outcome that the authors' employer would presumably desire.

From an academic viewpoint, the paper also fails to reflect important contributions in the area, which at least potentially go well beyond mere policy publication and embody enforcement. Barth et al. (2006) provides a formal model of Nissenbaum's 'contextual integrity' conceptualisation of privacy protection. If this model were to be implemented in such a manner that both an express denial of consent and an implicit failure to provide consent prevent disclosure and use of personal data, then it would go well beyond the weak Maguire / Microsoft approach. Similarly, Riederer at al. (2011) proposed "a mechanism called Transactional Privacy (TP) that enables release of portions of PII by end-users (on a strictly opt-in basis) to information aggregators for adequate monetary compensation" (emphasis added). Their design principles: were "(i) users should have control of their PII and decide what gets released, (ii) aggregators should be able to derive maximum utility of the data they obtain, and (iii) aggregators are best positioned to price the value of users' PII" (emphasis added). The Riederer model remains biassed towards the interests of the (corporate) buyers, but it empowers the consumer, it embodies enforcement, and it enables choice based on an buyer's offer. The designs arising from the EnCoRe project also included a "Privacy-Aware Access Control Policy Enforcement component" whose function was "enforcing security & privacy access control policies on personal data, driven by data subjects' preferences" Whitley 2013, p.172).

A cynical view would be that Microsoft, through its team, and in alignment with the 'FANG' group of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google, is happy to sponsor yet another pseudo-protection that doesn't actually harm business interests. An academic view is that the authors have reflected the interests of the corporate side of the market by proposing a trust-inducing measure, but have failed to serve the needs of the consumer side of the market and even to reflect the existing literature.

The narrowness of the five papers in the Special Issue is striking. The journal's focus is 'Electronic Markets'; and the Call for Papers related to 'Personal Data Markets', and the Call was very broad in its scope (EM 2013). The Call mentioned 25 specific topics, but 4 of the 5 papers are exclusively concerned with price discovery, and hence address just 2 of them: 'Valuation of personal data' and 'Behavioral studies of trade-offs in personal data disclosure'. Worse, the researcher perspective evident in all five of them is that of one side of the market. The would-be buyers of sensitive personal data are actively advantaged, not just to the almost complete exclusion of the interests of the other side - the individuals whose data corporations lust after - but to their significant detriment.

The analysis of the five papers in the Special Issue concludes that the aspirations that were evident in the Preface (Spiekermann et al. 2015a) have not been fulfilled. On the contrary, there are serious doubts about "the legitimacy and ethicality of" the approaches adopted; and, far from offering "ways to manage and protect privacy within those markets", the papers in fact investigate ways to buy off privacy concerns for minimum cost to the buyers. Moreover, the contributed papers are completely committed to the economic dimension, and to the perspectives of the corporations that acquire personal data, variously in primary markets, from the individuals themselves, and in secondary markets, from other corporations.

The final paper in the Special Issue is a Position Paper by the Issue Editors (Spiekermann et al. 2015b). As might be expected from leaders in the field, this paper evidences vastly greater awareness of the issues raised in this paper. The Issue Editors' intention is to outline "some of the economic, technical, social, and ethical issues associated with personal data markets, focusing on the privacy challenges they raise" (p. 161).

However, the Position Paper also embodies some of the key problems that the researcher perspective analysis exposed. The paper occasionally strays into the perspectives of data subjects, but it is primarily locked into the needs of business and government. One example is the statement that "personal data can become a burden for organizations as much as an asset" (p.161). Another is that, although the paper acknowledges negative effects on society of "the mere existence of personal data markets" (p. 163), and mentions "social cohesion, equality of opportunity, freedom, and democracy", there is little evidence of positive responses to the massive threats to personal self-determination embodied in the acquisition by organisations of highly extensive and highly intensive collections of data about individuals.

Even where a statement is made about self-management, it falls far short of the care, insight and precision with which the case for organisations is argued. A key passage is that "one can envisage interfaces that empower individuals to manage their personal data ..., ideally on their own trusted devices; this practice would establish a strong base for the user's digital identity" (p.164, emphasis added). This makes the unwarranted assumption that self-management can be delivered by 'interfaces' rather than by architectures, designs, interoperable infrastructure, and hardware and software features; and it completely overlooks the critical need for people to have not one but many digital identities (Clarke 2004, 2009).

Further, the paper lacks recognition of the significance of data protection to the physical safety of many segments of society (GFW 2011). The omission is all the less excusable because of the substantial recent developments in relation to promiscuity of personal data and location from handsets (Clarke 1999b, Dobson & Fisher 2003, Clarke & Wigan 2011, Michael & Clarke 2013), and the loudly-promised proliferation of eObjects that are intended to continually spy on individuals' behaviour, associations and movements (Weber 2010, Manwaring & Clarke 2015). Moreover, the single mention of 'democracy' fails to convey the impossibility of exercising political freedoms in a context in which surveillance of behaviour and experience are pervasive (Raab 1997, Gross 2004, Clarke 2008b).

The paper notes that "many consider privacy an inalienable right [but] data markets have developed in the opposite direction" (p.162). This fails to confront the crucial facts that the 'inalienable right' is embodied in an international convention that has been ratified by 175 nations, and acceded to by 94 of them, representing the large majority of the world's population (ICCPR 1966), and that scores of countries have embedded these rights at least in legislation, and in many cases in their constitutions. The problem goes even deeper, however, in that the breaches committed by organisations are glossed over, by referring to "legal grey zones", "enforcement gaps" and "regulatory arbitrage", which give the appearance of mere playfulness rather than the corporate misbehaviour and in some cases outright illegality that it actually is.

The paper recognises that "Interpreting personal data as a tradable good raises ethical concerns about whether people's lives, materialized in their data traces, should be property at all" (p. 164). On the other hand, the discussion continually reverts to the paper's dominant theme of 'data as property', and the emphasis on how people's reticence can be overcome, and how people can be made to put a price on access to their data - all to meet the desires of corporations, irrespective of the needs and desires of people. The Position Paper recovers the gross imbalance of the Special Issue to a limited degree, but it falls far short of the need.

4.2 Other EM Papers

Given the serious problems that the above analysis detects in the Special Issue, it became important to consider the extent to which the concerns are specific to those papers, or are common to the whole corpus of relevant works in the journal.

The Journal Editor's own Editorial at the beginning of the Special Issue provides an analysis of past articles in EM relevant to personal data markets (Alt et al. 2015). This identified 25 articles published between 2001 and 2014. Together with the six in the Special Issue, this provided a pool of 31 papers. One article was discarded from the set because it was not relevant to the topic-area of personal data markets and privacy. That left 30 articles for consideration. These were assessed in order to identify the perspective(s) that they adopted. The articles were coded in accordance with a protocol that had been previously applied to articles published in a range of other venues (Clarke 2015, 2016). See Appendix 1. The full analysis is provided in the Supplementary Materials.

Of the 30 papers, 8 were only marginally relevant, in that they related to the very narrow sense of the term 'privacy' used by some authors in the computer science discipline, whereby it is a synonym for 'confidentiality' within the CIA model - a concept that is better described as 'non-disclosure'. The pool was accordingly divided into two sub-pools of 22 and 8 papers.

In 18 of the core 22 articles, and 1 of the 8 fringe articles, the Object of Study was people. The remaining 4 and 7 articles examined organisations.

The perspectives in all 30 articles were on the Economic dimension. This may seem curious, given that a social value, privacy, was central to the field of view. The reason is that, in 20 of the 22 core (and arguably even in the other 2 as well), and in all 8 of the other articles, the Perspective was tightly focussed on the financial interests of corporations.

The 2 exceptions that were coded as being Multi-Perspective declared that the interests being served were respectively "sellers (individuals) and buyers (corporations)" and "music firms and music consumers". Both were concerned with models for pricing data, and inherently assumed that privacy is a merely economic right, that personal data is traded, and that individuals have little or no option in regard to the trading of their data, but that they may have some choice in relation to how much and at what price. Moreover, one of the articles investigated protections for corporations against consumers who cheated, but not protections for consumers against corporations that cheated. Hence the 2 articles were, in effect, strongly oriented towards the interests of corporations, with some acknowledgement of consumers' economic interests, but not at all of their social interests.

In summary, the perspective of the system-sponsor was adopted in all 30 articles, in only 2 was any other perspective considered, and in both cases it was secondary to that of the system-sponsor.

Closer attention was warranted to the majority of the 18/22 and 1/8 articles that studied humans from the system-sponsor's perspective. The following quotations from some of those papers are indicative of their tone:

"The objective of this study is to examine the effectiveness of three vendor strategies ... "

"[P]ersonalization can be a successful marketing strategy in some types of website only ... [P]erceived usefulness of personalization is a significant factor in attracting new users. Thus, it is worthwhile for firms to invest in data mining to analyse the transaction patterns among like-minded people"

"[B]y empowering consumers to control their private information, a firm may be able to create a competitive advantage by increasing customer trust"

"Companies need to care for consumer concerns regarding their Privacy and the use of RFID"

"LBS service providers should continue to allay customer's privacy concerns"

"e-[V]endors should give priority to the incorporation of systems on their web sites that guarantee privacy and security in the purchase process because it directly [and indirectly] affects e-trust"

"Privacy implications and information confidentiality issues are threatening the wide diffusion of business networking and online collaboration paradigms"

"Developers of product recommenders based on Facebook profile data need to carefully analyze [specific aspects of the data]"

The most striking feature of the texts is that they are, without exception, addressed to system-sponsors. In no case are any implications of the research framed in a manner that addresses the interests of the individuals who were the object of study, despite many opportunities to do so.

For example, the research question "Why do online SNS [social networking services] users continue to use these websites?" could very easily have drawn implications for consumers, as well as for corporations, such as 'the following categories of people may be subject to specific threats rather than mere generalised fears: ...', and 'users who are concerned about the intrusiveness of an SNS need to familiarise themselves with, and take advantage of, the following features: ...'. Similarly, research on "What are the effects of privacy concerns and personal innovativeness on customers' adoption of LBS [location based services]?" could have communicated to consumers the categories of individual who are rationally concerned about disclosure of location, the measures that are available to address the risks, and examples of products that do and do not match to the needs of the vulnerable.

The fact that the 30 articles in EM that have been relevant to 'personal data markets' were entirely committed to the interests of buyers (corporations) and marketspace operators (corporations), to the almost complete exclusion of sellers (consumers), represents strong evidence that a 20-year-old problem continues to exist. When Web Commerce was unleashed in 1994 (Clarke 2002), it was generally expected that take-up would be very rapid. It was not. The author has argued since the late 1990s that the very notion of 'Business-to-Consumer' (B2C) eCommerce was a major part of the problem (Clarke 1999a, 2006, 2008a). The problem is encapsulated in the '2'. A market supports the conduct of trade between sellers and buyers, and hence Business does eCommerce with Consumers. The adoption of '2' has led designers, operators and researchers up a blind alley, and the one-sidedness of papers published in EM is just one result of that intellectual blunder.

The conclusion from the analysis is that not merely the Special Issue, but the entire corpus of papers relevant to personal data markets that has to date appeared in EM, is solely on the economic dimension, isfully committed to the cause of corporations seeking to acquire and use personal data, and is concerned about the interests of other participants and usees only to the extent that they might have sufficient market power to harm the interests of data-exploiting corporations, and might exercise that power. It is not uncommon for authors to mention privacy, and even broader human rights, but the comments are throwaway lines, not central to the work.


5. The Broader IS Literature

Given the extreme narrowness of the personal data markets literature in EM, the question arises as to whether the problem is generic. Are contributors to EM trapped into a disciplinary Weltanschauung dictated by the bodies of theory that have emerged over the last 50 years?

The first approach adopted was to extract the history of the 'personal data markets' field by examining the key citations in the papers in the Special Issue. It was expected that this would provide a back-trace to the bodies of theory that have led the authors into the cul de sac. That was unsuccessful, however, because the papers examined only very narrow topics within the personal data markets space.

The second approach was to conduct searches on Google and in the AIS eLibrary on <personal data/information markets>. This established that the term has not, or at least not yet, gained much traction, with only a few score papers using the term, none of them with large citation-counts. It was therefore necessary to expand the search, using various combinations of terms such as <personal data/information>, <market> and <privacy>.

A review of "information privacy research" in IS is in Belanger & Crossler (2011). It does not mention 'personal data/information markets'. The 142 journal articles and 100 conference articles that it considered appear to be dominated by the MIS tradition. Some doubt exists about the sampling approach used. For example, the set contained a single one of this author's papers in the area, yet omitted half-a-dozen papers that have a combined Google citation-count well above 1,000. The papers in the sample are tightly focussed on the economic dimension, predominantly single-perspective in approach, and concerned with the system-sponsor perspective - in most cases with the interests of individuals considered as a constraint, not an objective. A faint hint of balance appears at one point in the paper: "Research could also take the form of an analysis of the dual perspective of the consumer and the web merchant, investigating the impacts of match or mismatch between the privacy preferences of the consumer and the merchant" (p. 1031), but the recognition of consumers' interests as being at the same level as organisations' interests promptly disappears back beneath the waves. A topic-area that departs from this norm is that dealing with Privacy-Enhancing Technologies (PETs), but this is primarily in the adjacent computer science literature.

Smith et al. (2011) presents an alternative 'interdisciplinary' "review of [information] privacy-related research ... with a sample of 320 privacy articles and 128 books and book sections" (p. 989). It is also strongly oriented to the MIS sub-set of the IS discipline, and is highly US-centric, with few of the references, particularly in the foundation analysis, from other than North American authors. It considers privacy as a right, but does so without reference to the ICCPR or to constitutional or legislative definitions of human rights. The authors write as though their audience comprises solely US academics, and call for more positivist empirical research to be undertaken. There is no discussion of researcher perspective, and no inkling of individuals as stakeholders. The authors appear to implicitly assume that the beneficiary of (M)IS research is system sponsors, not people. A review article in the same Issue, Pavlou (2015) is quite blatantly biassed towards the economic and system-sponsor perspective: "markets for managing customer information have long been established with the primary purpose of managing personal information in optimal ways, and there is a rich body of research in IS economics that can further extend the literature on information privacy" (p. 985), and "directs readers to" Varian (1996) as a source of "fundamental economic principles".

In order to establish an appropriate basis for understanding the narrowness of the (M)IS Weltanschauung , a fresh approach to analysis appears to be necessary.

The origins of theories in the area clearly derive from the work of Columbia University political economist Alan Westin (Westin 1967, 1971, Westin & Baker 1974). In those early years of personal data systems, the dominant school of thought, legitimised by Westin's publications, was that the invisible economic hand of business and government activity would ensure that IT did not result in excessive privacy invasion. Hence privacy regulation was unnecessary, or, to the extent that it was imposed, it was essential that the detrimental effects on business and government be minimised. The term 'Fair Information Practices' (FIP or FIPS) has been widely applied to this approach. Another influential work was the heavily economic interpretation of privacy advocated by Posner (1977). As European countries moved to establish statutory protections for personal data, the US Administration adopted a countermeasure in international fora, in order to sustain the freedoms of its corporations to handle personal data with minimal constraints. This gave rise to the business-friendly OECD Data Protection Guidelines (OECD 1980). The corporate sector successfully used the FIPs notion to deflect the energy of legislators towards weak privacy regimes which legitimated dataveillance measures in return for some limited procedural protections (Rule 1974, Rule et al. 1980).

The Westin/Posner lines of thought were combined and further articulated by a leading member of the Westin school. The endeavour was made to reduce privacy from a human right to a mere economic right: "market-based mechanisms based upon individual ownership of personal information and National Information Markets (NIM) where individuals can receive fair compensation for information about themselves" (Laudon 1993, pp. 2). The enormous scope that Laudon envisaged for the NIM was evident elsewhere in that paper: "MasterCard could use information on your credit history for the purpose of authorization of future MasterCard purchases, but it could not sell your history of credit card purchases directly to other institutions. [MasterCard] could however sell [your history of credit card purchases] on a National Information Market where it could be purchased by a credit bureau like TRW Credit Data who could then use the information for credit histories. ... if a government sells this information to third parties, or seeks information from sources oxtside government programs, then it would be treated as simply another market participant ..." (pp. 18, 21, emphasis added).

Works by Hal Varian, particularly Varian (1996), directly supported the Westin-Posner-Laudon thesis. For the Internet era, the intellectual underpinnings of consumer-manipulative economics was provided by Shapiro & Varian (1999). This book defined 'loyalty' as a one-way relationship from consumer to provider, achieved through lock-in techniques based on deep knowledge of customers. Despite the deep intrusions into personal interests inherent in the proposals, the book does not even include the word 'privacy' in its 1000-entry index. The fourth paper in the EM Special Issue, Rayna et al. (2015), draws directly from Varian's business school economics.

The notion that 'personal data as personal property' in some way represents a solution to privacy problems - certainly for business, but probably not for consumers - continually re-surfaces, including in influential books like Lessig's 'Code 2.0': "we could imagine an architecture, tied to a market ... It needs the push of law. The law would be a kind of property right in privacy" (Lessig 1999, p. 160). It is significant that the sole instance of a suitable privacy architecture that Lessig mentioned was P3P, which, even as he wrote, was already doomed to failure.

Further contributions in this line are Schwartz (2000, 2004) and Bergelson (2003). Schwartz (2004) "develops a model of propertized personal information". Schwartz argued that "other legal scholars have advocated propertization of personal information, ... generally without sufficient sensitivity to privacy concerns". Schwartz proposed "five critical elements ... that would help fashion a market that would respect individual privacy and help maintain a democratic order ... : limitations on an individual's right to alienate personal information; default rules that force disclosure of the terms of trade; a right of exit for participants in the market; the establishment of damages to deter market abuses; and institutions to police the personal information market and punish privacy violations" (p.2056, emphasis added). Despite its claims of being 'sensitive to privacy concerns', Schwartz's model is merely another avenue towards the objective that corporations desire. The 'right of exit' element is the US notion of 'opt-out', which is the antithesis of consumer empowerment through the necessity of consent - which in US parlance is deprecated as 'opt-in'. A more balanced policy contribution from the sociology discipline, Rule (2007), expresses serious concerns about the facilitation of such pseudo-consensual personal data access.

Even in 1996, when Laudon finally published his paper in Communications of the ACM, his view of propertisation of personal data had already been roundly rejected in Europe. The Data Protection Directive of the European Union (EU 1995) went well beyond the business-friendly / privacy-weak provisions of the OECD Guidelines of 1980. The formal protections it established (Simitis 1995) quickly spread across all EU countries. Meanwhile, Samuelson (2000) provided a polite but firm refutation of the propertisation arguments of Laudon, Varian and Lessig. Kang & Buchner (2004) identified four areas of contention in what they characterised as the economics-dignity debates: (1) what initial entitlements are assigned to which parties, (2) how is informed consent assured, (3) how are reasonable societal overrides to be decided upon, and (4) what legal apparatus is necessary to enforce the norms (pp. 27-28). A further, much-cited work that rejects economics as the lens through which privacy issues should be viewed is Solove (2006).

A scan was undertaken of the works of highly-cited IS researchers in the area of privacy and information systems. This shows them to be strongly US-centric, and wedded to the system-sponsor perspective. The orientation of the works of one author is summed up by the book-title 'Managing privacy: Information technology and corporate America' (Smith 1994). The most apparently consumer-friendly of another author's works, Culnan & Bies (2003), although it talks throughout about balance, remains constrained within the narrow sub-set of data privacy protections embodied in US FIP formulations such as FTC (2000). Indicative of the work of a third, Tamara Dinev, is this: "A systematic understanding of individuals' privacy concerns is of increasing importance as information technologies increasingly expand the ability for organizations to store, process, and exploit personal data" (Xu et al. 2008). These influential authors consistently treat individuals as objects of study not stakeholders, and individuals' interests as constraints not objectives.

In Narayanan et al. (2012) the failure of 'Decentralized Personal Data Architectures' to achieve traction is examined. By that term they means approaches such as personal data stores, intermediation, distributed databases, peer-to-peer overlay networks and mesh/edge networks. The authors identify a range of technical and economic challenges. A similar analysis focussing on social media services is in Clarke (2014). Because decentralised architectures represent a means of giving data subjects a degree of market power in their transactions with corporations, it is unsurprising that they have attracted little in the way of corporate investment, and none have achieved critical mass.

In the AIS eLibrary, a total of 2 (out of 30,000) papers contain <"personal data/information market">. Both were co-authored by one of the co-editors of the EM Special Issue - Spiekermann et al. (2012) and Novotny & Spiekermann (2013). Of the two papers, the second is the more significant for the present discussion. Recognising the need for "an innovative information-rich world while maintaining privacy", the authors propose "a 3-tier information market model ... to empower people as much as companies", which enables personal data to be "used and traded', but lets "[people] control their information and identities. ... In our model, company obligations vis-á-vis consumers are enforced by the law and supported through privacy" (pp.1635-1637, emphasis added). Novotny & Spiekermann also note the paucity of papers on personal data markets that reflect the privacy need, citing only Laudon's 1996 version in CACM, Noam (1997), Schwartz (2004) and Aperjis & Norman (2012).

Opening the search in AIS eLibrary out to <market AND ("personal data" OR "personal information")> extends the catch to 25 papers. However, many are of very marginal relevance, or investigate aspects of consumers' trading-off between the privacy value and monetary rewards, or serve the interests of corporations that are seeking to extract pseudo-consents or cheap deals from consumers, and contribute little to market design. The paper of most apparent relevance, van den Broek & van Veenstra (2015), compares personal data markets with other 'governance processes' for inter-organisational data sharing. It is solely concerned with the secondary market, and completely excludes the interests of the individuals whose data is being trafficked. It also assumes an intellectual property basis for both markets and bazaars - despite this being clearly an inappropriate assumption in the case of personal data. The paper does not treat privacy as a requirement. It is merely a business risk and a constraint on achieving the grand promise of the marketing catch-phrase of the moment: "Whereas European data protection legislation requires data minimisation, big data is based on the notion of data maximisation" (p. 10).

There are, of course, many papers in the AIS eLibrary that include "privacy" and "personal data/information". Most of these, however, are also strongly economic in orientation, and single-mindedly committed to the system-sponsor perspective. However, a recent, valuable contribution that has the capacity to open personal data markets research out into more promising avenues is Hauff et al. (2015).

There are other, related literatures, such as that on the cost to corporations of privacy breaches, e.g. Acquisti et al. (2006), Clarke (2016). There is also a small legal literature that tries to apply the awkward notion of 'markets for information privacy', e.g. Nehf (2005). The primary theoretical frame of reference of the published works to date on personal data markets appears, however, to be the Westin-Posner-Laudon-Varian line of argument, which values corporate freedoms over privacy, and attempts to reduce privacy from a human right to a mere tradable item.


6. Implications

The author's contention is that inadequate diversity in researcher perspectives is a seriously inappropriate characteristic of an academic discipline. Historians who re-write history for dictators are pilloried. Laboratory scientists who falsify data or results in order to serve the needs of a client are dismissed from academe. Conducting research single-mindedly for system sponsors, to the detriment of other participants, and of non-participant 'usees' affected by systems, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to such behaviour.

Because markets are an instrument of specifically economic behaviour, it could be seen as only natural that articles published in the Electronic Markets journal are almost all on the economic dimension - and, in the small sub-set that was relevant to this analysis, exclusively so. On the other hand, markets of all kinds have environmental implications, and the discipline needs to give at least some degree of consideration to that dimension. An 'environmental sustainability' literature exists, but in that genre environmental factors are merely constraints, and the objective continues to be the wellbeing of business.

Of even greater significance and importance are markets' social implications. With the last 50 years of decline in the power of governments relative to corporations, and the dominance of neo-classical economic thought, a strong momentum has been achieved towards imposing markets on a great many activities that were previously perceived to be social in nature. The privatisation of national infrastructure such as telecommunications, water, roads, railways and ports has been followed by prisons, hospitals, clinics, education at tertiary, secondary, primary and pre-school levels, aged care, support for the disabled, and even security and private military corporations (PMC) that go beyond support services and training almost to the level of outsourced military operations. The social dimension has arguably become a very significant aspect of electronic as of other markets. Yet, despite the significance of the social dimension, the corpus of works published in EM on personal data markets, shows no recognition of the need to go beyond the economic dimension.

Even within the economic dimension, many Perspectives are capable of being adopted. The nature of markets is such that its participants comprise as a minimum one or more sellers and one or more buyers. Intermediated marketspaces have advantages in effectiveness and efficiency and hence many markets feature marketspace operators. A variety of service-providers may be closely associated, in particular for logistics, finance and insurance. Each of these stakeholders needs enough researchers to adopt their particular perspective, enough of the time, not necessarily exclusively, but in a manner that equally weights their interests with those of other stakeholders.

In some electronic markets, regulators have direct roles to play, as occurs for example with embedded monitoring of stock exchange transactions. The Porter model of corporate strategy that has dominated strategy theory for three decades (Clarke 1994) has always lacked, or preferred to ignore, the role of regulators and of law. Unbounded profit-seeking behaviour has very substantial side-effects, far more serious for society and the polity than is conveyed by the anodyne economic concepts of 'externalities' and 'market failure'. As a result, many forms of electronic market also need to be viewed through the eyes of regulators and public policy makers, and none more so than personal data markets.

The application of the researcher perspective notion to electronic markets suggests that:

All of the above categories of research are particularly relevant to personal data markets. In primary markets, where individuals themselves are sellers, the dual-perspective approach (sellers and buyers) and triple-perspective approach (sellers, marketspace operator and buyers) are especially important, because of the imbalance of power between the two sides. In secondary markets, where organisations trade data about individuals, it is vital that single-perspective studies also be undertaken from the viewpoint of the people to whom the data relate - non-participant usees. Further, multi-perspective research intended to inform public policy processes must be defined to be within-scope of personal data markets research, of electronic markets research more generally, and of the IS discipline as a whole.

The declared scope of the EM journal is sufficiently broad to encompass all of the approaches discussed above. The Call for Papers for the Special Issue was also very comprehensive. The serious weakness lies in the papers that were submitted, not only to the Special Issue but also to the journal over an extended period. This appears to reflect a malaise within the IS research profession, whereby not only US Business School academics but also most European researchers have been drawn into the vortex, and have come to perceive IS as merely serving the interests of organisations, and particularly business enterprises.


7. Conclusions

The current genre of personal data markets research is ineffective, even in its own terms. Much better services would be provided to corporations if researchers adopted dual- and multi-perspective approaches to research, and developed genuine understanding of the various stakeholders' interests and needs, rather than playing laboratory games intended to minimise the cost to business of enveigling consumers into trading their privacy off for convenience or a small amount of money.

Beyond that, however, the current genre of personal data markets research is morally bankrupt. The large majority of research actively and wilfully ignores the interests even of participants other than the system sponsor, let alone the interests of people who are non-participants but who are affected by the system. To the extent that researchers are also IS professionals, they are in breach of their obligations under professional bodies' Codes of Ethics. They only escape being in breach of obligations under the Code of Research Conduct of the academic Association for Information Systems (AIS) because that body has yet to grasp the nettle and extend its coverage to the protection of people other than its own members.

The dominance of the system-sponsor perspective in IS research is so great that the argument pursued here might well be regarded as 'beyond the pale', an outlier and even extremist view, and a call in the wilderness. US Business Schools successfully use excusatory movements as a form of camouflage for the consumer-exploitative techniques that they teach and research - in recent decades under such mottos as 'business ethics' and 'corporate social responsibility'.

The IS research community can readily hitch itself more formally to such flags of convenience. Alternatively, it could develop its own. It could overcome its eternal existential angst by abandoning the notion that information systems is about all aspects of systems that handle information, and instead replace 'IS' with the 'MIS' tag and formally exclude interests other than business interests from the discipline's scope.

If, on the other hand, the IS discipline aspires to the mantle of a genuine academic discipline, it needs to carve out a much larger space. The discipline can revert to the original notion of 'everything about systems that handle information', and recognise that the explosion in IT's capabilities and applications have drawn the whole world inside those systems, and have very substantial impacts and implications for individuals, groups, societies and polities. That approach makes it almost incontrovertible that the perspectives of all affected parties need to be reflected in research.

Venues that adopt the latter, expansive and positive approach rather than the existing, retractive and negative one, need to do something about how they acquire papers for publication. Calls for papers need to expressly address dimensions additional to the economic, and the perspectives of all stakeholders, broadly defined. Further, Editors need to reject submissions that are mechanistic and narrow - and clearly explain the reasons for the rejection. They need to develop a culture among their reviewers that strongly favours dual- and multi-perspective research, and sets the bar much higher for the routine, single-perspective research that currently takes up so much of journal and conference in-trays.

The focus of this paper has been on personal data markets, within the broader area of electronic markets. The problems that it has found have ramifications well beyond those genres, and raise questions about the future path of the IS discipline as a whole.


Appendix 1: Coding Protocol

For each article:

  1. Select one from these CATEGORIES:
  2. Select one of these DIMENSIONS:
  3. Select one of these OBJECT of STUDY:
  4. Select one of these RESEARCHER PERSPECTIVES:
  5. Assign code HSS if the article is both H (Human Unit of Study) and SS (System-Sponsor Perspective)
  6. Capture the Research Question, or the Objective if C for Constructive
  7. If Perspective is not dominantly SS, capture the Perspective(s) in text form
  8. Capture key quotations which are indicative of the researcher's perspective(s)

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Supplementary Materials


Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in Cyberspace Law & Policy at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Computer Science at the Australian National University.



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