Daniel Neyland: power to the people – is privacy the future of online marketing?

unnamedDaniel Neyland (left) and Sveta Milyaeva from Goldsmiths, part of the University of London, suggest that the best way to resolve the privacy issues caused by companies mining and exploiting personal data commercially is for consumers to take charge and sell it to them.

Many of us feel our right to privacy is violated by the collection of personal data online. But data-mining is a big industry: central to the growth of global businesses, small and large.

Our latest research shows that there’s a way to turn the practice around in our favour, with economic growth driven by personal data under the control of those of us who generate it.

You may have noticed that after a spell of online window-shopping the products you were browsing begin to follow you to adverts on other sites. Aside from being a bit creepy, these practices raise serious concerns about privacy, who controls our data, and who is making money from it.

Our research predicts you and I could soon be the ones in charge, with economic growth driven by our personal data, under our control.

As tech entrepreneurs develop new ways for us to lock away personal information in ‘data vaults,’ the potential grows for us to start selling that information on ourselves to ambitious online start-ups.

The gathering and use of personal online data is big business. It’s central to the business models of tech giants like Google and Facebook who sell information about our online habits to companies that use it to target us with so called ‘behavioural advertising’.

Attempts to regulate these practices have been bogged down by political wrangling in both Europe and the US, with industry arguing that stemming the free-flow of data will endanger economic growth.

Protecting our right to privacy online without compromising a booming industry in what is an uncertain economic climate is a balance that governments, regulators and businesses have so far been unable to strike.

Some progress has been made as we explain in our report, ‘Is Privacy the Future of Online Marketing.’ You can’t have failed to notice that websites now have to ask permission to drop cookies on your browser that track your online habits and controversy continues to rumble over the EU’s ‘right to be forgotten’ legislation.

The report is part of the Goldsmiths Market-Based Initiatives as Solutions to Techno-Scientific Problems (MISTS) project. It explains how a possible solution has sprung up where you might least expect it.

New data firms are actually developing software that lets users protect their privacy by limiting the information websites are able to gather from their browsing.

Products like ‘data vaults’ lock away personal online data and not only let us decide who we share it with, but how it’s used. Suddenly individuals are in a position to get something back from their data and in some cases even sell it on to ambitious online start-ups.

But what about the growth question? Tech entrepreneurs developing these new privacy software solutions argue that economic growth could actually be driven by personal data, but under the control of those who generate it – you and me.

They speculate that this could lead to the creation of a market for personal data that would offset any negative economic impact on firms that have so far relied on harvesting our personal data, both free of charge and of meaningful regulation.

Daniel Neyland is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, with research interests covering issues of governance, accountability and ethics in forms of science, technology and organisation.

Sveta Milyaeva is a research Fellow on the ERC funded MISTS (Market-Based Initiatives as Solutions to Techno-Scientific Problems) programme of research. She completed her PhD in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh and joined the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths in June 2013.

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