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Why current data brokering is simply not sustainable

Festival 2014Changes must be made to the way businesses and individuals understand and more critically, manage personal data. This was the idea behind a talk I delivered (as part of the Policy and Advocacy session) at Mozilla’s recent, annual MozFest.

 

The festival is dedicated to forging the future of the open web, discussing solutions to the web’s most pressing issues. For Telefónica, the transparency of personal data definitely falls into this category and we’ve powered research in this area for over two years.

 

As you may have read in my previous blog post on the data-trading economy, I believe data is the currency of the digital economy and that in the future, data-trading could be a realistic and exciting market. But this will never come to be a reality if businesses’ handling of personal data does not evolve from the current practices which are damaging consumers’ trust.

 

Current data-brokering is not sustainable, (see US Senate report blasts data-brokers), and creates the real risk that users will refuse to be tracked, using tools to block cookies or mask identity, and taking steps to corrupt their online identities.

 

Those steps would be catastrophic for this potentially exciting market.

 

Telefónica is an advocate of the need to evolve the current online data-brokerage practices towards a more transparent data-trade, respectful to users. Right now, average users are simply not aware of the extent to which they are being tracked while they are online. They feel they are getting little value out of the multi-billion advertising and e-commerce industries which have grown lately, fuelled by personal data.

 

To continue with this work, however, we need to foster a community to build an independent and broad effort to increase awareness of this subject. This year’s MozFest theme “Arrive with an idea, leave with a community” resonated well with our ambitions around personal data transparency. Quite simply, we cannot do it alone. When we saw that MozFest’s Policy & Advocacy session was described with the line “We are at a critical point in history to protect and advance the free and open internet”, we knew this was a great opportunity for us to speak to like-minded people to build a community at this critical point in history for personal data online.

 

Together with Mozilla’s “wranglers”, (thought-leaders on a particular topic), Dave Steer and Alina Hua we organised a telco-focussed session in which our team would present research on data transparency, Deutsche Telekom’s Frank Wagner would talk about its joint Mozilla project “Future of mobile privacy” and Vodafone’s Kasey Chapelle would present on network privacy.

 

As part of the session, we demo-ed a tool that our team created which shows the price variations obtained by asking for an online product from several locations worldwide. Called “$heriff”, it demonstrates how data, such as a user’s location, is used unfairly by some retailers to fix prices. The results of this price discrimination tool can be a real eye-opener for people unaware that this practice exists. For example, the same digital camera in the same online retailer’s front page is priced at €724 from the US, or €926 if browsed from Sweden.

 

To demonstrate this further, we organised an interactive role-play with the audience.

 

I played the role of a visionary entrepreneur opening a new retail store in London’s high-street area. My shop was fictionally located in London’s Piccadilly Circus, with an entrance facing Regents St. and another facing Soho. There was just one article for sale – one model of laptop computer.

 

To start the game, I selected a group of “taggers” in charge of judging the shopping style of customers from a group of tags (Fashion Victim, Value for Money, Luxury, Geek, etc.).  The rest of the audience were “shoppers”, half of them queued on each entrance, waiting to purchase the same laptop model. Shoppers would be tagged as well depending on the entrance they were queuing at (i.e. as in the US versus Sweden example). We also used post-it notes as physical “browser cookies”, and filled shopping bags with post-it notes describing previously bought articles, a “purchase history” of sorts. I played the clerk at the pay-point, snooping into the bags without asking for permission (as in the online world) in order to further tag shoppers (Local, Tourist, Compulsive shopper, etc.).

 

I’m sure it gets the message across. People were really surprised at what they found and how it corresponded to real-life. They were judged by their behavior outside the shop, given a different price depending on the door they took and finally had a stranger looking into their bags at their purchase history to give them a further label. All to calculate a price different for each of them without their permission. It’s a ridiculous idea when demonstrated with a physical shop, but some retailers do this on a daily basis online.

 

I also took a moment to introduce the new project we are developing, the Data Transparency Lab. Our vision is to host a workshop to bring together a community of personal data transparency activist researchers, regulators, startups and industry representatives. Together we will explore how to support further research in tools and evidence in data and policy reports to help encourage respectful and transparent online data handling.

 

If you represent or know of an organisation that may be interested in contributing actively as researcher, advocacy or sponsor in this area please point visit the registration page at: datatransparencylab.org

 

This piece also featured on Telefónica Innovation Hub

 

 

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