The Online Data Debate

Is the open season on online data about to end? Neil Cumins investigates…

When you created your social media accounts, did you study the privacy policies? People joining Facebook last year were unlikely to finish reading its 14,000-word data policy, while those “we’ve changed our terms and conditions” emails could lay claim to users’ souls without anybody noticing. Few people have the time or patience to wade through reams of convoluted legal jargon, even though these contracts are legally binding and potentially significant.
We ignore these privacy documents at our peril, however, because our online data is not our own. Facebook studies typed-then-deleted messages that were never actually published, and it’s currently fighting a lawsuit claiming that it provides advertisers with the contents of private messages.
Meanwhile, Twitter grants itself extensive control over the usage of uploaded images – including uses it hasn’t even thought of yet. LinkedIn can appropriate concepts and ideas discussed on its site as if the ideas were its own, and Instagram was forced to roll back on a 2013 declaration that it could use private photos in future advertising campaigns.
Quite apart from Government agencies recording and monitoring what we say in cyberspace, it’s clear that information ceases to be personal when it’s shared online. That’s particularly true when the data relates to businesses – you may be happy to click a “like” button on Facebook, but these companies aren’t seeking your approval without motive. They can harvest your personal information and use it in all sorts of ways, from offering discounts on your birthday through to cross-selling related products and services. Facebook announced in September that it will soon start utilising maps of individual users’ browsing history on third party websites. Anonymous advertising agencies will be able to identify offsite website activity and respond with targeted ads while people are logged into Facebook.
Obviously, the simplest solution to such data mining is to stop using social media sites. A life off the grid means no loss of IP rights or convoluted privacy policies to wade through. Unlike the contents of C drives, anything posted on social media can effectively be sold to any partner organisation for any reason at any time – even years after the original poster has been forgotten about it. However, this probably won’t deter the people whose entire lives seem to revolve around status updates and online conversations.
There’s growing speculation that a medium-term solution involves paying people for their data – belated acknowledgement that personal information carries real value. A recent study for Orange suggests consumers place an average value of £140 on the personal data they share with businesses, rising to £200 when unfamiliar companies receive this information. The survey also indicated that ten times as many people believe companies benefit more from personal data mining than the people being mined.
It’s likely that we will look back on the current social media age with mild astonishment, wondering why people were so unguarded and naïve. The current obsession with placing personal information in the public domain will surely diminish with every cloud hacking scandal and intrusive ad campaign. In the meantime, we can probably expect to receive greater rewards/discounts/incentives for clicking “like” or sharing information, as people wise up to the fact that their social media content is actually public property. Advertisers will finally need to attach a fair value to the information they harvest online, as personal data becomes more closely guarded and harder to acquire.
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