Why being public about data privacy is disruptive to media and telecommunications companies

I recently attended a panel discussion with the Managing Director of Facebook Australia in which all the usual questions came up: How many people use Facebook? What does Facebook plan to do with Whatsapp? What is your value proposition? How do you guard from being the next Myspace?

In a brief overview of the company, Will Easton outlined Facebook’s plans to optimise their social platform, ‘own’ the mobile ecosystem with individual and messenger apps and build the communication platform of the future. He also stressed the importance that Facebook places on user experience, saying ‘the whole company revolves around’ it particularly as Facebook sees itself as ‘the place where people’s social media journey starts’.

What was missing from this overview of the company was any explicit mention of the role data privacy plays in Facebook’s strategy, business model or in Easton’s description of the company’s devotion to user experience. As users of Facebook, Google and almost any media or telecommunications company we trade the use of our data (for targeted advertising or other purposes) for the use of the platform or service or content. This idea is as old as the internet and has many advocates and just as many detractors – there is even an International Data Privacy Day. So why don’t media and telecommunications companies tell their users, explicitly outside the fine print, what they do with your data? And why isn’t the trade-off you make to use their product or service more prominent?

There are countless examples of media and telecommunications companies that have come under increasing scrutiny for the way data is used. Facebook, Google, Zynga and Snapchat, just to name a few, have all been called out for cases where users’ data has been ‘misused’ or the use of the data ‘miscommunicated’ to the users. If you are interested in who has ‘got your back‘ this year on data privacy the Electronic Frontier Foundation publishes a yearly report on how companies protect your data from government requests. But are government requests the problem? Perhaps this view is more strongly supported in the US.

Just this week Europe’s highest court ruled that people have the ‘right to be forgotten‘ by asking Google and others to remove some sensitive information from internet search results. This sentiment points to the idea that in using these services (like search or viewing content) you generate personal data which could be used against you by companies like Google. Perhaps trying to get a job at Google may be harder if you have some incriminating search queries. The flip side of this thought, is that the data you create actually supports you to make more informed choices through targeted advertising (goodbye random floating banner adverts).

Where privacy and strategy meet is in the business model combination of: 1. data, 2. targeted access to customers and 3. advertising dollars. This is a $503bn market globally and $3.47bn in Australia. Here lies the protential for disruption – what would you pay to have your data kept private or forgotten on Facebook or Google in place of using their products and services? $10 a month? Perhaps you don’t care? Or perhaps using the service isn’t as important to you as your data or how it may be used in the future? Perhaps you want to be paid? There are already a number of companies exploring options around privacy like TOR or Trustlayers. TOR is software which fluctuates your IP and MAC address so as to remain undetected on some sites (obviously not those you choose to login to) and Trustlayers is an enterprise data privacy compliance software.

Whilst this market is still small and perhaps only suited to the hypercondriacs and conspiracy theorists… it has disruptive potential. Media and telecommunications companies should consider bringing data privacy choices to the user, making them public and part of the user experience. This will help to combat growth in data privacy start ups, user abandonment and damaging regulation.

 

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