We have been living in a digital age for a while now, whether we fully acknowledge it or not. Since the dawn of the World Wide Web and the early internet, the past 25 years has given us email, WiFi, cloud storage, mobile applications, social media and the advent of the data age. Since the introduction of the world wide web, we have been harnessing the power of information in slow, incremental steps, giving rise to the data-driven technologies that would shape the current world and accentuate data as our most valuable asset.
The data travels in many forms, from personal logins and financial transactions to Google search results and shared location services. We are hooked on various platforms and although the interaction with our favourite apps seems smooth and harmless, we hardly acknowledge the real value of online presence. By exposing personal information and individual preferences, the big companies gather sensitive data and turn it into humongous revenues, fueling the $350 billion digital advertising industry, mostly controlled by Google, Facebook and few tech giants. While the digital world is being devoured by search and display ads, clicks and social media targeting, the generated profits are substantially high for the advertisers, leaving its users without a fraction for sharing their personal information.
In addition, several high-profile consumer data breaches have raised serious concerns regarding the user’s privacy, security and trust. The consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the current business models and following recent scandals, feel less secure about sharing data. They are also more thoughtful about what kind of information they share and with whom. Ongoing breaches and consumer demands for privacy have forced governments to set new regulations, such as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), with Brazil and others following up with their own policies. The new regulations give users more control over their data. They can request access to it, see how it’s handled or traded for advertising, and ask for removal, if necessary.
The rage over privacy has prompted Apple, Google and Facebook to rethink their strategies and implement new policies.
Apple introduced a ‘pop-up window’ that asks for permission to track users’ data. The change has led to 80% of the users opting out from tracking, strongly affecting small and medium enterprises, which heavily rely on targeted ads. Naturally, for many this means raising prices on their products and services, to compensate for the loss of customers and offset declining sales.
Google also plans to disable tracking technologies, as people have little trust in ‘cookies’, however the company is working on alternative methods to keep advertising without exploiting personal information, to sustain its $150 billion revenue-stream.
Facebook is trying to adopt a similar approach, offering ads to its users based on various insights and indirect behavioural patterns, rather than on personal preferences.
The effort to regulate the market, protect privacy and keep digital revenues flowing is an extreme challenge, and to acknowledge what’s at stake and whether it’s doable, we have to first understand what makes our data so valuable, how the society can benefit from it and what would be the future implications for shaping a more secure, trustworthy and transparent future.
The real value
The majority of the apps track our data with or without our consent and the companies behind use it for advertising purposes, either by selling to data brokers or utilizing it for personal products or services. Alongside Google and Facebook, there are dozens of companies that have access to billions of devices on a daily basis and collect and sell analytics to app developers, marketing agencies and public institutions, including the government.
The data allocated is centralized, owned by huge corporations and treated as a private asset, mostly for their own ends. We are not fully aware of what kind of data they hold precisely, how it is analysed or what are the intentions behind it. Maybe it could benefit us in more ways than we think, if only we had access to our online activities, patterns and behavioural cues.
The ownership of data in private hands feels unjust, creating ground for manipulation and the abuse of power. Even though the platforms allow us to communicate, share and promote content, advertise brands and even market ourselves, the data generated from our activities is mostly redirected for advertising purposes or exploited in some other ambiguous way, unknown to the regular user. Products and services are designed with users in mind, however there is little for us to say or participate in defining what’s truly good for our community.
Who owns the future
Recent regulations and changes in company policies forces industries and big players to make radical shifts and adjust to a new reality, where both users and companies remain happy and continue their prosperous relationship. As privacy remains one of the biggest obstacles, industry leaders seek for solutions, with several incentives open for discussion.
First – paid subscriptions. Many think that we should be paying for services on Facebook and Google, the same way we do on Netflix and Spotify; avoiding targeted ads and protecting personal information.
Second – micropayments for our fair share of data. Every piece of data has an intrinsic value. If data-sets were structured and given value, consumers could earn monetary rewards for the assigned pieces. Besides, taking into consideration the current pace of development in machine learning and Big Data, there is a constant need for raw data, to train machines and feed them with loads of information. Hence, the value of data in some cases could be priceless, taking into account the years of expertise, quality and the sheer volume that involves human labor to sustain it.
Paying for data-sets is a brilliant idea, however it still doesn’t resolve the online surveillance problem. As long as we have centrilized entities running our accounts and streaming our data, we will still be going in circles.
The real solution to the problem is much closer than we assume. The unprecedented speed of technological advancements and the natural evolution of the internet has brought us to a new frontier, giving birth to Web 3.0 and decentralized applications, running on blockchain.
Blockchain allows users to fully own and control personal data. It creates opportunities for monetary incentives and rewards users for participation, governance and maintenance. Members can sell their data-sets, validate input among various members by voting and become content creators, by integrating NFTs. The first time in our digital history, we have paved the way for an anonymous, secure and transparent system, built with collective effort and dedication.