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Who should control your personal data?

Any Facebook user who may have been laboring under the impression that the personal data they have posted to (or collected for) the popular social media site belonged to them received very clear signals recently that Facebook has other ideas.

The intentions of Facebook were made crystal clear when not just ours, but also another tool to allow users to export their data -- in this case their "friends" list -- for use in other social networks were blocked by Facebook, supposedly to protect its users. As CEO of Open-Xchange - and a long time promoter, investor and leader in open source and open standards - I wanted to offer a way for Facebook (and other network) users to have full control over how they used their own data.

We've been warning for some time now about the dangers of proprietary networks and urging users to "Command their Data" and yet Facebook's actions were still a slap in the face, um, book. But this was just a glimpse into a future where one company controls your personal data for its own profit. Critics of Facebook have long argued that Facebook's users have willingly provided every single piece of data the social media company uses to generate its revenue, and there would come a day that users trying to pull away from Facebook would discover that their data is not really their own.

That day seems to have arrived.

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We all have a measure of trust for the websites and online services that keep our data. We must, in order to function online. But when a site as large and influential as Facebook so blatantly demonstrates how it disregards users' information ownership and privacy for the sake of profit, how can we continue to trust that service any longer?

The danger does not just come from Facebook. You see free (as in free beer) is rarely free for freedom's sake.

There are many "freemium" businesses out there, such as, for example LogMeIn. They offer a completely free-of-charge tool to access your remote desktop. Really cool stuff. How does LogMeIn make money? By offering a paid tool that adds even more features.

In contrast to freemium business models are the companies that offer completely "free" services. How do companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter do this and stay in business?

For years we have been Googling about sex, health, driving directions and more - all for free. Or has it been? Google is an extremely profitable company making a living off... access to you. To your eyes, to your mind, to your data.

Facebook specially states in its terms and conditions that it, not you, owns your data - your emails, your photos, you friends.

While I may be ok with the fact that those services parse my data for targeted advertising on the Web, I am certainly not OK with them claiming ownership of this data, regulating my access to my data. That's going way too far.

Bigger issue than just Facebook

The problem, unfortunately, is more widespread than just Facebook.

Apple has come under increasingly heavy fire for its data retention practices. Until the practice was discovered this spring, the software company was collecting customer data to track locations of popular iPhone devices. The company later released an update to limit the amount of data collected, and iPhone users can now turn such tracking off. Twitter and FourSquare's location-tracking services have also posed a security problem, as incautious users have allowed public posts reveal exactly where they are--which can pose a risk to their personal safety--and where they aren't--posing a risk to the safety of their property.

Google, for all its free services, maintains a staggering amount of end user data--even data on Internet users who aren't registered with Google. According to Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble, Google can track web user behavior whether or not they are signed into Google's services. This data is collected and sold--sometimes instantaneously--to marketing and advertising companies so those same users will see advertisements that are focused solely on what should interest them.

Pariser describes an even more chilling scenario. Even if Google wasn't selling this acquired data to outside vendors, it still uses this data to customize future searches for users and improve its own ad sales. This could lead to scary scenarios: If a user continues to visit more left-leaning political sites, the search results they see for "President Obama" will be different than what a frequent visitor of right-leaning sites sees. That would mean that ideas will become self-validated, and diversity in conversations and thoughts will be polarized even more. All because Google wants to generate that all-important ad revenue. Evil often springs from the best intentions.

This is where the future of social media and online activity will take us if we are not more diligent. User privacy has long been regarded as a luxury by these companies--something they will grant only as long as it doesn't interfere with the company's goals. Data must be treated as owned by the individuals who provided it, not the websites who host it.

Until that very basic core tenet is realized, all Internet users run the high risk of seeing the information that comprises their lives becoming the property of someone else. Data privacy and control is not "so 1980," it's very much now.

Bio: Rafael Laguna is CEO of Open-Xchange. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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