Towards the improvement of transparency on the web

Glass is considered as the transparent material by excellence. It was discovered almost by accident by Phoenician merchants who visited current Syria. Then, in the Middle Ages, glass suffered a...

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Lourdes Tejedor / @madrid2day

David Del Val

CEO of Telefónica I+D   

Imagen post David del ValGlass is considered as the transparent material by excellence. It was discovered almost by accident by Phoenician merchants who visited current Syria. Then, in the Middle Ages, glass suffered a darkening similar to the one that Europe lived at that time, acquiring a greenish color due to the seaweed used in its manufacture. And it was in the Renaissance, during one of the periods of greater openness of our civilization, when one of the world’s most famous glasses was created: the Venetian glass.


The “glass” of our day is the one that covers the surface of our computer screens, mobile phones or tablets, letting us see what happens in the Internet. And we would like that this window to the digital world had the transparency of Venetian glass and not the medieval glass.


Today most of us are somewhat restless or even worried about the use of our personal data on the web. We do not have enough knowledge of how this information is used when we implicitly or explicitly share it while surfing the web. For instance, we are surprised when visiting the website of a newspaper we find out an advertising of the object we looked for in an online store just a few days before. And we wonder how that information got there.


As a result, we are starting to see the first reactions to protect against this phenomenon. The most radical people directly decide to avoid advertising appearing on their pages. As a consequence, it is not surprising that AdBlock Plus is the most downloaded complement of Firefox browser, with about 20 million users.


Other less radical people accept advertising as long as it is generic and not personalized. These ones use tools like the private browsing that all major web browsers implement, which prevents the use of cookies to identify the person. Chrome has “incognito”, Firefox has “private windows” and Internet Explorer has “InPrivate Browsing”. There is little data available on how many they are, but we know that in 2012, 19% of users used the private browsing mode of their browser.


Another mechanism that is more explicit is the one that configures the Internet browser to request to Web servers not crawling our navigation. Although today are countries where up to 13% of users have configured their browsers this way, its effect is actually not high because large Internet content servers often are not respecting this request for privacy. The advertising industry believes that the protocol is too restrictive and alternative technologies are being developed.


Sometimes the user feels as if participating in a kind of game of cat and mouse. When a mechanism that avoids the use of cookies is widespread, it is discovered that web servers use “super cookies” for the same purpose. What happens is that not avoiding “super cookies” is much more complicated because there is not a single type of “super cookie”. For example, there are “super cookies” associated to the HTTPS protocol and there are others related to the use of Flash content.


Anyway, what is clear is that today advertising is a key and legitimate funding mechanism of the web. But if citizens’ concerns on the use of their personal data increase, we run the risk that the economy of the web could stop being reliable. And I think this is something that everyone (companies, advertisers and users) agree it would not be good for anyone.


We want the website to be a reliable place where people feel free to roam. And we think the solution is transparency. And that goes for the user to know what is done with their personal information that implicitly and explicitly turns on the Internet; and, ultimately, that the user has control of what they do with that data. In essence, it is about including the user in the core of the discussion.


That’s why we created the Data Transparency Lab with important actors like MIT Human Dynamics Lab, the Open Data Institute, the Centre for the Digital Economy, University of Surrey or Mozilla Foundation. Our aim is to investigate how the current flow of personal data on the Internet is and create tools to enable the user to at least know the flow and, where possible, have control over it.


We seek to create the equivalent of a second youth of glass, like when new techniques discovered in Bohemia endowed glass a transparency unknown to date. And that’s the transparency that, in 2015, we want for the Internet.




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