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How Much is Your Online Information Worth?

Posted by Sheila Shayon on July 21, 2010 04:00 PM

Raw data generated by users online fuels billions in ad revenue annually; why do you think Facebook is so grateful to its 500 million members today?

Between personal profiles, search queries, photo-sharing, and other social web behaviors, Google, Yahoo, Facebook and others are gathering information to refine and target their online ads.

Cue Bynamite, a San Francisco-based start-up now ramping up a digital business that aims to help consumers turn their online thumbprint into some value for them — or at the very least, make it visible.

"There should be an economic opportunity on the consumer side,” explains so-founder Ginsu Yoon to the New York Times. “Nearly all the investment and technology is on the advertising side. Our view is that it’s not about privacy protection but about giving users control over this valuable resource — their information."

Yoon and his colleagues see an opportunity in the growing issue of privacy transactions and pricing personal data, and the chasm between consumers and marketers on the World Wild Web.

Despite all the talk of privacy these days, web surfers may not even be aware of the digital trail they're leaving, or how their actions are generating income for others.

Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, argues that every online transaction involves "selling" (users' information via a search query) and "buying" results. Google uses that information to serve up targeted ads.

“In reality, we constantly make transactions involving our personal information,” says Acquisti. Bynamite is “simply trying to make these kinds of transactions explicit, more transparent to the user.”

New products for consumer privacy such as ReputationDefender and Abine, and for children’s privacy, SafetyWeb and SocialShield are attracting venture capital. Bynamite, in contrast, doesn't consider its service anti-advertising nor an ad blocker, but rather "libertarian and free-market."

Now in a beta release version, its browser plug-in is free, but currently only works on Mozilla and Chrome browsers. It enables users to track how they're being tracked, with their interests categorized and displayed in categories on a web page – shopping, travel, health, news, technology – and ranked by frequency of usage and online purchases.

A daily update ‘mirrors’ how a user is seen by the commercial Internet, almost like tracking your credit rating in real time.

The goal is to make personal information flow and data-mining as transparent as possible to the consumer. The company has no business model yet, but Yoon and co-founder, Ian Wilkes, both Second Life alums, predict that as Bynamite gains popularity, users will create a “consumer’s preference wallet” which will function as virtual currency.

How might it work? Individual profiles could, for instance, serve as micropayments or discounts where subscription fees would be discounted in return for preference wallets.

In a world where marketers are getting more aggressive and more creative about gathering consumers information, it's an interesting proposition to educate consumers about their online persona and how online marketers are watching.

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