TOC That time may cease! Time theft left unchecked Your Turn
In my inquiry about the nature of information (see 4/03/07 fillip), I have highlighted how time is of the essence. Indeed no legal framework can undergird our Information Age unless it is itself built on an economic theory of time. We may have known for some time that "time is money" (1) and the radio and television industries may price its advertising slots by the second. Kevin J. Delaney and Sarah McBride do not miss the point in their reporting the deal between Google and Clear Channel (*). Unfortunately this is utterly unsufficient. In order to understand what time is about, ask yesterday's poets rather than today's economists.

"That time may cease and midnight never come: [...] or let this hour be but a year, A month, a week, a natural day". Marlowe's Faustus exclaims as the clock strikes his last hour. What Faustus discovers to his most exquisite anguish is how precious time really is. Not the banker's time though, as she computes the present value of an investment, nor the television station manager's time, as he sets his advertising rate card, but one's very own time when the distractions of this world, be it TV programming or the pursuit of money, no longer hide the indeniable truth about life.

Economics may be inspired by poetry. It is nevertheless a science and as such must measure what it studies. Not a problem. Telephone companies have measured people's time by the minute for as long as one remembers. Cellular telephony advanced science further by bundling a preset number of minutes into their subscriptions. How lifelike! Hear customers talk away their precious minutes as if they had all the time in the world only to find out three weeks later they have but one minute left for the next ten days. Cellular phone marketing gurus had read their Marlowe all right. What beats being in a position to sell extra minutes to Faustus in his final hour?

Law is for ever catching up with Lucifer, the Prince of marketing (see 2/06/07 fillip). I have railed at the US Congress for condoning ID theft with its inaction (see 10/03/06 and 12/19/06 fillips). But at least US legislators have admitted there is such a thing as ID theft and written bills on the subject. Time theft is nowhere near this level of recognition. Who has ever tried to quantify the cost of spam from the perspective of its egregious stealing of user time (see 6/27/06 fillip)?

Legislators will reply that there is no theft when its object has no value. By this argument one's ID has a value since it can be stolen. Isn't it strange then that the US Congress persists to deny individuals the right to own and market their data rights at their own will (see 5/30/06 and 2/27/07 fillips)? But I digress. At issue here is whether user time has any value. Again, not a problem. Commercial radio and television as we know them barter attractive content for user attention. Since content has value, user time has some as well according to economists. In fact Internet fosters a rapid rise in the value of user time as information potential shifts away from the intrinsic value content providers can claim to the extrinsic value media companies extract from advertisers (see 3/13/07 fillip).

Assuming one own's time is valuable, it becomes obvious that it can be saved as well as stolen or bartered. Faithful readers may recall my analyses of recommendation schemes over the Internet (see 12/05/06 fillip). Recommendations are nothing but a great way to save one's time. In her latest column (**), Mrs MoneyPenny has been quick to see the potential of allowing experts to guide users who believe in their domain expertise (2). Where the Queen of England stamps, let every commoner treads. For those who prefer recommendation schemes based on popularity rather than authority, Duncan J. Watts has a bit of advice (***): randomness is inherent to the process. Let him cast the first stone who has never bought a best seller at the bookstore door rather than spending time browsing its back shelves.

Lest the reader believe the topic is more politics than science, consider that the value of one's own time is not the same for all. Phone companies and advertisers may put a price on time. Even if this price does not vary with the user, we can argue from these facts that user time carries real value. But user time is personal per principle. Its true value cannot be measured accurately except on a personalized basis. Imagine a world where every economic agent strikes its own currency. For an economist, this is quite a challenge. For advertisers to boost the efficiency of the underlying barter to their advantage, it means a need for ever greater personalization.

Here is another cogent example of why one shouldn't separate information theory from eprivacy (see 3/13/07 fillip). One can hardly blame marketers for a deep understanding of their profession. Nor can we accept advances in time economics justify a wanton disregard of both our rights to privacy and our capacity to negotiate terms (see 12/12/06 and 1/02/07 fillips). In this light I blame Louise Story and Miguel Helft for their report on Google's acquisition of DoubleClick for $3.1 B (****). Besides being a leader in Internet advertising, DoubleClick is a major aggregator of consumer data and the authors were conscious of the issue. Indeed they got Randall Rothenberg to assert "You can protect privacy and provide great insights for advertisers". But wait, can he have said otherwise? Mr Rothenberg "represents online publishers, including Google". Does one quote a wolf on sheep welfare?

I would rather learn how Google plans to compensate their legitimate owners for the value of both their personal time and private data. I would rather learn why two months ago DoubleClick sold Abacus for $435 M while more than seven years ago they paid $1.7 B for this same consumer database company. Although the 2000 Internet bubble burst shortly thereafter, one is entitled to think the decrease in price reflects the fact that DoubleClick sold a mere copy of the database and retained the original. If you were afraid DoubleClick had turn itself into Big Brother in 1999, what will you say about Google (see 5/16/06 fillip)?

"Our gain would reach its greatest pride / If all this noisesome bog were drained. / I work that millions may possess this space."
If Goethe were here today, no doubt he would look at our reclaiming eprivacy as yet another task for his latter Faust.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ......... Google, Clear Channel Reach Radio Deal, by Kevin J. Delaney and Sarah McBride (Wall Street Journal) - April 16, 2007
  • (**) ....... Windsors and losers, by Mrs MoneyPenny (Financial Times) - April 14, 2007
  • (***) .... Is Justin Timberlake A Product of Cumulative Advantage?, by Duncan J. Watts (New-York Times) - April 15, 2007
  • (****) .. Google Buys an Online Ad Firm for $3.1 Billion, by Louise Story and Miguel Helft (New-York Times) - April 14, 2007
  • (1) see the wikipedia
  • (2) for an implementation, see ePrio's technology.
April 2007
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