Abiding Themes 2 / Privacy

For all the column inches that it garners, you would have thought that the issue of on line privacy, and the collection of personal data by websites would be a bigger concern for the average internet user.  However, when you look at the level of minutiae about their daily lives and relationships that people happily post onto Facebook or Twitter, it is clear that on the whole, people aren’t that concerned about exactly what they share.

The CEOs of both Facebook and Google have publicly made comments along the lines of:

If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to worry about…

The functionality of both of these websites – along with thousands of others – rely to an extent on users being comfortable with being tracked around the Internet so that their behaviour, interests, likes and dislikes can be built into their user profiles, and ultimately used to tailor the advertising experience that they receive in the future.

There are ongoing legal issues about non-consensual data capture, and all websites should have some degree of privacy policy that outlines what information is being used and what it is being used for.  As of 2010, the Facebook privacy policy ran to more than 5,830 words.  Google have a basic policy outline that is around 1,700 words in length but also run additional privacy policies for each of their different products, and many of these are longer.

While websites do publicly display their privacy policies, only a comparatively small number of people will ever read the full terms of service – the same is often true of the infamous EULA that you get when you buy software.  People using the web recreationally want a convenient Internet experience, not one of checking boxes every time they load a new page.  We live in a world where assent is assumed:

Qui tacet consentit

Of course, there are two ways of providing information, consensually sharing it through active posts or uploads, and passively sharing it via publishers using analytics to track your behaviour.  Ultimately, to be successful, Social Networks rely on a combination of both of these methods of gathering information about their users.  In order to tailor an experience to the user, or intoduce the user to new content, it is important to know how they behave and what they like.

It’s also really important to note that in the off line world, individuals share a great deal more information than they do on line. From store loyalty cards through to government agencies, data is constantly being moved around, aggregated, packaged up and sold, often without consent.

Does this matter?

From a marketing perspective, having better information about the audience means that campaigns can be constructed in a more demographically relevant way making them more efficient at a cost and conversion level.  It also means that people are not subjected to advertising that is not in line with their interests.

Data capture also means that individual preferences can be taken into account to tailor the user experience to what the user wants.

The biggest challenge with privacy is ensuring that data is not used for purposes beyond the reasons explicitly given for capturing it in the first place.  Ultimately, people need to take responsibility for the information that they make public, and take an active interest in what they don’t realise they are making publicly available.

Ironically, for a large percentage of the on line audience it is the improving experience that they have on line in terms of personalised search results and behaviourally targeted advertising that is educating them to challenge what they are sharing, and share less passive information.  This ultimately leads to a worse experience for them in terms of receiving media that is poorly targeted, and search results that are less relevant to them.

There needs to be an opt out model for the internet – most modern browsers now allow this, but in order to have a more fulfilling experience on the Web, it is all but essential to surrender some personal information.

As Eric Schmidt said:

If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to worry about…

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