Monday, 18 March 2013

An end to online autonomy?


In Part 2 of her blog on digital data ownership, Liz Coll, senior policy advocate with CI member Consumer Focus, asks: Does being part of social and economic activity online mean giving up autonomy over our personal data, or withdrawing from the online world altogether?

In my last blog post I talked about the big contrast between the importance that external agencies attach to consumer data, and the significance consumers themselves assign.

Now I turn to look at if the digital economy runs on personal data, and consumers are the primary source of this new commodity, will consumers seek to exploit its potential, or continue to be exploited for it?

The challenge

The challenge for those working in the consumer interest is to find a way to transform the current scenario into a mutually beneficial one. This could involve helping consumers develop a stronger understanding of the potential value of their data, and getting them ready to engage with new opportunities.

If consumers are able to exert more control over how their data is used, there is much to gain. We are starting to see initiatives such as midata in the UK, or Green Button in the USA which offer consumers opportunities to have access to, and benefit from, the data that companies currently hold.

Despite attracting some controversy because of security and privacy concerns, they are an indication of how personal data is becoming a market in which consumers could take a bigger share.

Our research

As discussed previously, we commissioned ICM to survey 2,002 adults aged over 18 so we could develop a better appreciation of consumers’ understanding of the issue.

One of the things we wanted to test was how consumers felt about some of the new thinking around terms and conditions which effectively reverses the current provider-dominated relationship.

It works by getting providers to agree to terms and conditions that are set by an intermediary on behalf of the individual, prior to them taking up the service.

Only 8% of respondents were keen on this option, perhaps seeing it as impractical. The preferred option was shorter terms and conditions in plain English and equivalent to no more than two sides of paper (47%).

Forty per cent of respondents wanted to use a set of more consumer-friendly generic terms and conditions developed by an independent body. Perhaps personalised terms and conditions are only for the early adopters, but the support for conditions written in the consumer interest is strong.

Want control, but don’t use it

The vast majority of consumers think they should have more control over their data, but only a few use existing controls: Despite limited understanding of what is collected and why, 84 per cent of people want more control over what information organisations collect about them and how it is used.

This also came through strongly in Demos’ recent research on public attitudes  towards personal information and data sharing.

They found that people would welcome measures to give them more control over personal information, in terms of knowing what is held on them and having the ability to withdraw it.

Generally consumers wanted to have a more honest and open dialogue about how their data is used and on what terms.

However, only one in eight consumers say they currently use any form of control panel or dashboard (for example, http://adblockplus.org/en/features) to set their online privacy and personal information collection preferences; most do not know they exist.

This could reflect the visibility, accessibility and usability of the tools as well as people’s awareness of them. (The survey took place before regulations requiring cookie consent notices on websites were introduced in May 2012, it is likely that awareness is higher now.)

Mutually beneficial

Earlier I set a challenge to those working in the consumer interest to find a way to transform the current one-sided scenario into a more mutually beneficial one.

To start to do this, consumer groups could take a bigger role in enabling people to engage with new opportunities and tools in the personal data economy.

These have the potential to shift the relationship between providers and consumers onto a more balanced footing. Whilst data protection should always be at the heart of consumer advocacy and empowerment, the status of personal data as such a major new commodity also demands additional attention.

There are question marks over whether the usual routes to protection are still able to adequately regulate the actions of global companies. Think, for example of the threatened fine to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg of €20,000 over privacy concerns by the German data protection agency.

There are similar doubts as to how effectively regulation can keep up with the fast pace of change online, and how national law can be imposed on a global network.

Danger of stifling advantages

Too hard a clampdown may well stifle the advantages to be had from effective, consensual sharing of personal data and would almost certainly alienate the large numbers who are comfortable with, and feel they benefit from, sharing.

Not to mention very quickly infuriating almost all online users with the possibility of bringing free-to-use services to an end!

So, are we left with the alternative of accepting that being part of social and economic activity online means giving up autonomy over our personal data, or withdrawing from the online world altogether?

None of these seem particularly productive, and all fail to make possible the benefits of using personal data in a more mutually beneficial way.

Doing things differently has potential benefits for consumers. For example using personal data more intelligently could mean personalised, and more responsive, products and services.

There are advantages for business too, particularly if they can be part of a more balanced, permissions-based relationship with consumers.

New opportunities

Taking up opportunities, including but moving beyond data protection, will depend on consumers and consumer groups quickly building a more critical understanding of the:
  •  current relationship that we are part of online with regards to our personal data, based on a much fuller understanding on what we give up in exchange for what. As part of streamlining consumer protection laws, BIS is considering (see page 21 point 62) whether consumers should have the right to remedies for ‘free’ digital content (eg download/streaming/games) which are supplied without payment of money, but in exchange for something of value other than money such as personal data or virtual currency.
  • scale at which personal data is used, and to what end by providers. As well as concerns about an individuals’ personal data and its use, the large scale data and analysis available to providers and the potential for this to shape markets will be a major issue for consumers.
  • growth of consumer empowerment and personal data as an emerging market, and how new services and developments via intermediary bodies may work. Helping individuals protect and manage their own data is fast becoming a market in its own right, leading to a growth of business which can help consumers negotiate services and products to their advantage, such as personal information management systems.

Such developments enable consumers to have access to their data and share it with parties that put it to work for them.

The increased influence that consumers have due to the potential of digital technology to cheaply and quickly facilitate collaboration and joint action. The web has made possible a more effective way for consumers to participate and achieve goals together.

This bypasses the need for traditional institutions and enables consumers to counter powerful interests and exert more control – see previous Consumer Focus research on things like collective switching, using mapping software to identify and fix problems, online feedback and the theory and practice of online collaboration and consumer co-operation.

Understanding these new dynamics will require digital literacy in the widest possible sense, what Rheingold would describe as knowing how to participate online for both individual advantage and collective influence.

Increased control

Certainly, our research and the Demos survey both point to consumers wanting to have more control over their personal information. Contrasts (such as wanting more control, despite not using existing controls) could be explained by the lack of tools, services and motivation to do things differently online.

What is not yet clear is what the catalyst will be that prompts the majority of consumer to take an active interest in their data. Here are a few suggestions for what might spur on more collective and collaborative action to rebalance the personal data equation:
  • Further high profile examples of forcing through changes to terms and conditions changes such as the new terms imposed by Facebook might be the start of the turning point. Instagram’s reversal of a decision to suddenly change its terms and conditions on privacy is also a good example of consumers showing their collectively powerful hand.
  • The availability of alternatives such as midata, which is now starting to gain traction as the UK Government looks to put it on a statutory footing may be able to demonstrate what a more balanced personal data relationship looks like in practice. Companies such as Tesco in the UK are planning to release back their Clubcard data to customers to enable them to see and make plans on the basis of their shopping habits – just as Tesco have done behind the scenes.
  • Greater awareness of the outcome for consumers of businesses applying personal data inferences to prices. In the UK, the Office of Fair Trading is investigating personalised pricing, where inferences about our personal habits and data affect what price we are charged.
 Forecasting the potential and impact of digital technology is common practice on the web, with new scenarios and ideas regularly emerging.

When considering predictions for personal data (central to so many future developments), we must remember that the way we use digital technology is still in a period of negotiation and development.

Certainly, powerful interests have consolidated some control, and are moving to take more, but users and consumers still have a stake in how things develop and an opportunity to influence ways in which they can exert more control over their fate.

There is much to play for if consumers want to make the most of the prized commodity that derives from them, and there is a critical role for consumer advocates to support them. Are you ready for the challenge?

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