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Extending the Goldhaber perspective to the Internet as a whole, however, requires a few intermediary steps, Goldstein says. Last November, after launching Attention Trust, Goldstein handed off the reins and started focusing on Root Markets, a commercial venture designed to facilitate the collection and sale of individual user data.

Goldstein likens Root Markets to Fannie Mae, the federally backed company that buys, bundles, and resells U.S. home mortgages to the investor marketplace. Individual users or publishers acting as a proxy for users supply their Web usage data to Root Markets with the agreement that Root Markets, in turn, can bundle the data for resale to certain marketers and advertisers. In addition to knowing how their information will be used and sold, users receive whatever discounts that Root Markets can wring out of corporations eager to get its hands on bulk pre-qualified leads.

“Wells Fargo doesn’t want one mortgage lead today; it wants 50,000 leads, and it wants 50,000 leads for delivery in October,” says Goldstein, singling out one potential buyer. “That way they can better plan out the bandwidth costs at their call center.”

Not too many people sign up to be on the other end of a telemarketer’s call sheet, but that’s the whole point, Goldstein says. The first thing a user notices upon registering a Root Markets account is how spyware sites bearing names like “a.tribalfusion.com”

and “atdmt.com” dominate the daily “visits” page, a visual artifact of the cookies that follow and monitor us from page to page. Even if one dismisses the Goldhaber economic view of attention as its own currency, Root Markets certainly exposes how cheaply many of us currently value our Web usage data.

“We want to be influential, but we want to give away as little information as possible,” says Goldstein. “We can give away no information at all, but that’s sort of like storing all your money in the mattress. This provides a way to control your data while at the same time participating in the broader economy.”

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