What Price, Privacy?

October 15, 2014

At IP Expo last week in London, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, outlined his vision for the future of the web, and data ownership in his keynote speech.

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Over the past few years there have been numerous concerns about big data and its use. Tim Berners-Lee argues that whilst he is perfectly happy for his personal data to be used by professionals where it is of benefit to him or mankind (e.g. healthcare professionals in a road traffic accident), this does not apply to commercial organisations for the purposes of targeted marketing. Tim argues that the owners of personal data are the data subject, not large corporations, and that we should have a say how it can be used and where it can be sold or merged with other data sets.

Others take a different view. An interesting panel discussion with Raj Samani, Andrew Rose & Josh Pennell ensued later in the conference. There was disagreement amongst these panelists whether the ‘reputational damage’ argument regarding data loss actually meant anything these days to organisations, since data breaches are seemingly ubiquitous and those outside the industry, especially the Facebook generation, simply don’t care if their personal data is lost. Time will tell if there is long-term damage to Target, for example from their breach, although early indications appear to show that the share price of Target has mostly recovered.

Earlier in the month, Raj Samani had argued in a webcast to Forbes, that as a consumer, he gives consent for his personal data being used and shared when he signs up for services, and that most consumers will happily do so, given there is consent, perceived value and transparency. After, all, services such as Twitter and Facebook are free for the end-user to use. Raj does concede however, that the terms and conditions are rarely clear, being large legal documents, and that few end users will actually read them. There rarely is effective transparency in these cases, if end-users do not realise what they are signing up to.

How Tim’s proposal might work in practice would be to change legislation and afford personal data the same status as copyrighted data: use and context requires specific owner consent and re-use requires a royalty paid to the data subject. It may also solve the forthcoming conundrum about the “right to erasure” in the new EU Data Protection legislation: if I ask to be removed from one database, in theory the deletion should cascade into third party databases, where the data had been sold on. It would also take away some of the burden from over-worked regulators like the ICO, who are severely under-resourced.

I’m sure many organisations will say such a model is unworkable, but it may just make organisations think about how and where they use our personal data, especially if over-use of personal data directly affected bottom line via royalty payments. 40 years ago, in the Cold War era, if you had suggested an interconnected network of disparate computers upon which banking, finance, government, education, retail and leisure all relied on, which would become both ubiquitous and intrinsic to our daily lives, the idea would probably have been dismissed as the work of science-fiction and unworkable. Yet in 2014, we rely upon the internet to sustain all these things and more. Our industry needs such radical thinking today for a new model of data protection.

Phil Stewart is Director, Excelgate Consulting