Who will pay the price for online privacy?

The last few weeks have yet again given rise to lots of noise regarding our privacy rights when using the internet and the use of our personal data.

There clearly seems to be a wide range of reactions from those that are simply accepting ‘that’s the way it is when using the internet‘ to those challenging the Big Brother state and  fighting legal action in breach of privacy rights often citing a number of scare stories regarding misuse of data.

But let’s be clear that there are two distinct things here that need to be considered:

  1. Collection and use of our online behaviour and personal data to drive legitimate targeting of advertising and offers
  2. Misleading and illegal practice of our personal data and our internet usage (more later)

The reality – that some have already bought into – is that #1 is a requirement we all need to accept to enjoy the many great experiences such as Facebook, YouTube & Google that we enjoy on the internet without having to pay a fee. For instance, Facebook’s IPO valuation of $100bn is not based on getting money directly from the c850m Facebook users but based primarily on driving revenues from the brands that are looking to connect with their target customers on the Facebook service.

You can certainly sense the online advertising market is progressing rapidly and I can personally notice much more personalised targeting of adverts on many of my favourite websites – but in respect of my own privacy I won’t tell you what they were for!! ;-)

However, clearly many companies including those named above are still not getting this right in many peoples eyes. Despite the large-scale of concern on this issue the development of the internet and advertising market is not going to go backwards. I remember leading BT’s internet advertising at the turn of the millennium when there was initial consumer resentment to pop-up adverts and we stopped using them. Several years on, in a seemingly unspoken agreement to continuing to use them for free, we have got used to some of our favourite websites being almost completely taken over by brands.

To continue to be successful online I believe that what internet services and brands need to do is to provide a more simple and transparent approach to their use of customer data and provide options for those that are more sensitive to the issue.

Some of the more simple ideas that I would recommend are:

  • Only share and provide your customers data with trusted partners. This may sound obvious and we are all used to ‘ticking or not ticking’ the box about providing data to 3rd parties but clearly there are some cases where this is not the case or at least in the customer’s mind the perception is that their data has been compromised. You need to be seen to be ‘whiter than white’ with this data and so for instance why even try to confuse (which sometimes seems to be the case) which box to tick in the first place!
  • Having a clearly visible code for what data you collect, what you will use it for and who you trust it with. Linked with the above I really believe that transparency and honesty is key so that customers can decide if this is a fair and appropriate return for the benefits they get from using the site. Simplicity is also important and you should allow customers to view whatever data you are holding on them and make it simple for them to amend or delete.
  • Provide options for those that are more sensitive to use of their data. This of course opens up the issue about whether we will we pay for using many of the internet services that we have become accustomed to using for ‘free’. I don’t for one minute think we would all start paying to search the internet and this is maybe as much about providing a ‘premium service’ for those that agree to the use of their data. That being said, how many might pay £2-10 per month for services like Facebook and YouTube if all their concerns about personal data and privacy were removed?
  • Help customers privacy for those that share computers. Some of the more vociferous complaints on this issue have been about serving inappropriate adverts to young children or partners using a shared computer. This is a clear issue so any internet service or brand that can create a simple solution to serve adverts only appropriate to the user would be a winner. Maybe someone can quickly develop something akin to Android’s ‘Face Lock’ so that the computer knows more accurately who to serve adverts to.

Clearly there are more things that need to be done to improve customers trust but I do believe that there is a strong future for internet services and brands that manage this  transparently, simply and legitimately with their customers.

This brings us back to #2 above which is where I really believe the big problems and scare stories occur from. There are much more shady operators than Facebook and Google out using the internet with their various hacking and phising scams.

Sadly there is no silver bullet to fix this and criminality will continue to exist on the internet as it does in all other walks of life.

However, I do also believe that those brands benefiting greatly from online advertising and e-commerce could help themselves further by clubbing together to create a more straightforward and consistent use of customer data across the internet. This could help in the better self-regulation and policing of the internet and make the nervous amongst us more comfortable when interacting with brands online.

In the meantime, we as customers seem to be left to do much of the hard work by trying to manage the data we provide the multiple services we use online – if we can find out how to do this on their site –  and of course importantly making sure we have an up to date firewall to try to prevent us from the really nasty stuff!