Just How Valuable Is Your Web Data?

All Data About People Has Commercial Value

The Sunday Telegraph reported on 27 November what many people have been concerned about for a long time with social media in general and Facebook in particular.

Facebook is to to be curbed on how it exploits its users’ most personal information. Jason Lewis, Telegraph Investigations Editor wrote that the European Commission is planning to prevent Facebook ‘eavesdropping’ on users ‘to gather information about their political opinions, sexuality, religious beliefs and whereabouts’.

Why does it want this information? To sell to advertisers, of course. Targetted ads are the new holy grail of the internet. Regardless of people’s individual privacy wishes, data is harvested by scrapers from every web activity, every link/friend, each comment. What friends are up to, how all their social lives change, what music/film they follow, is all captured.

Nothing Is Ever Wasted on the Web

In short, each piece of information given willingly and freely by users has a commercial value. Lewis cited an example of a woman announcing she is to be married and being hit with wedding advertising. Social media can use keyword searches on behalf of advertisers. Every single thing ever put on Facebook is stored, even when the user has deleted it from his/her own pages.

That can amount to thousands of pages of data held on every one of the 800 million users. All users approved Facebook’s actions when they signed the 4000 word contract. In the USA alone, this business of tracking personal data to sell to advertisers is worth billions of dollars a year.

Lewis reckoned the Euro directive will damage the plans of CE Mark Zuckerberg to ‘float on the New York stock exchange in 2012’. It will hit the way Facebook makes money, even though the data is largely stored in the USA and these laws can only apply to Europe.

The strengthening of citizen rights to the use of their own data (they will have to opt for targeted ads) in the European Union, will have a knock-on effect in other global areas. The EU data protection working party has warned all internet companies over ‘the use of behavioural advertising techniques that track individuals to serve tailored advertising’.

Facebook’s Counter Argument

Facebook are fighting something of a rearguard action, arguing that advertising is ‘age-gated’ so under 18s don’t see alcohol or sexual content ads and advertising firms see only ‘anonymous and aggregate’ information, according to Lewis. However, this still means advertisers can target quite narrow groups, such as, for example, males between 17 and 22, interested in sports, cars and contemporary music for a specific ad campaign.

It may be that they are protesting too much. They can’t hold back the technology which allows targeted ads on laptop/smartphone/tablet screens, in shops and in the street. It may also be that some people in age profiles, say under 40, do not mind personalised ads aimed at them, however intrusive others find them.

So, if you’re worried (you don’t even have to be paranoid) you can always sell your own data to whoever you choose. The Wall Street Journal earlier this year ran a story about how selling your own data on your terms, is ‘becoming part of big start-up business’. Big players like McAfee and Microsoft are creating ways to protect users from having their movements monitored online.

S-I-Y, Sell It Yourself

Some companies are paying commission when particular personal data is used. Some ad companies are even selling services like removing your name from their databases, which is a bit like the old Mafia protection scams: you pay money to the thugs so they don’t beat you up.

Chief Executive of Washington-based Personal Inc, Shane Green, described data as ‘a new form of currency’. Allow Ltd is a London company who sell people’s personal information for them, and pass back 70% of a sale. Their boss said: I wouldn’t give my car to a stranger for free, so why do I do that with my personal data?’

British based Allow employ a strategy to first make your data scarce, to increase its later value. Clients are removed from the UK’s top 12 marketing databases, which account for 90% of the market, and then as your data amasses it takes on real value. While people attracted to this will enjoy an ad-free world, there comes a short time when they permit specific ads to hit them, paid for by the advertisers using their data.

If you have an intention to buy a specific product, then the price of your data can go up. You’re in the market for curtains this week, so you allow paid curtain ads just for a week. But in the meantime, you have reduced spam and junk mail, plagues of modern living.

Data is an ‘Asset Class’

Data is increasingly recognised as an ‘asset class’, the right to property, rather than simply a matter of personal privacy. People (should) have the right to manage it, withhold it or sell it on their own behalf. People are too used to simply giving every bit of info demanded all the time.

For instance, if you want to open a quick, free email address with Yahoo, they wont provide the service unless you give your date of birth. When you were born is irrelevant for an email account, but very useful for advertising companies.

There are already bright entrepreneurs selling protection for children and families on all sites. The burgeoning tracking industry (privacy branch) is but an extension of that. Microsoft seem to have conceded an anti-tracking tool will be available in future web-browsing software. Google are reported to be ‘agonising over privacy’ issues.

For many of these companies, privacy of individuals is anathema to their monetising philosophies. Apps can be sending back data, and no user knows, and even when hit with some ad that follows the use of the app, is unaware of how that data has been exploited. Most will believe it’s just coincidence that an ad coincides with their interests.

But as we are learning, even if life is full of coincidences, the internet isn’t.

Photo: US Army

Sources:

  • The Sunday Telegraph, Jason Lewis, Think you control your Facebook data? Think again, 26 November 2011.
  • The Wall Street Journal, Julia Angwin and Emily Steel, Web’s Hot New Commodity: Privacy, Feb 2011.