In the middle of a media force-feeding frenzy over the birth of a once and future British king was the royal-related news on July 26 that the editor of the French magazine Closer and others were being charged by a French court for violating that country’s strict privacy laws. Remember those pictures Closer published last September of the topless Duchess of Cambridge? She appeared, sans chemise, on the terrace of a Provence chateau owned by the Queen’s nephew.
There was no question of trespassing here. The photographer took the photos from a public road using a long lens combined with (as the images’ heavy pixilation revealed) heroic digital magnification. So I was surprised by news of the criminal charges. My thought was, if you expose aspects of your privacy outdoors, you should accept the possibility of being seen and thereby forfeiting, without legal recourse, your privacy. But, then, I don’t know much about French law, and, even more importantly, I don’t have the House of Windsor behind me.
Few of us do. And this means we have to take appropriately proactive measures to safeguard our privacy. Maybe find a nice thick hedge or a good solid fence. Or maybe bank on one of the few advantages of not being a royal or a pop star—to wit, the unlikelihood of anyone ever pointing a long lens at you.
But there are people—corporate entities, really—who are intensely interested in you, in me, and in pretty much all of us. And they have a level of financial backing that makes royal backing look paltry. On July 28, the advertising giants Omnicom and Publicis announced their merger. Last year, between them, the two companies enjoyed revenues of $22.7 billion—well short of Google’s $50 billion in 2012, but far richer than any other advertising company. Where does such money come from? Two words: big data. As Publicis CEO Maurice Lévy told the New York Times, “the ‘billions of people’ who are now online and providing data to companies offer an opportunity to use advertising technologies to crunch billions of pieces of data ‘in order to come with a message which is relevant to a very narrow audience.’”
Everything we browse to, look at, click on, and buy, every online form we fill out, every social media post we make, every Facebook like we register, every ping our smartphones fling into the ether is harvested by the Googles, the Omnicoms, and the Publicii (?) that are among the Internet’s richest and busiest stakeholders. Even a royal doesn’t stand a chance against them. And as for the rest of us …
We can clamor for the “right to be forgotten” à la the European Commission. We can minimize our digital footprint—or at least try. (Even resorting to bricks-and-mortar purchases will still get you online, unless you do business on an exclusively cash basis—and remember to shut off your perpetually pinging smartphone.) Or we can surrender and just live with it—an option that actually works quite well, provided you can persuade yourself that e-commerce merchants really do need your personal data to serve you more effectively.
There is, however, an alternative to all of these “choices.”
The headline of an AdAge Digital article published late in 2011 put it this way: “Here’s My Personal Data, Marketers. What Do I Get For It?” At about the same time, David Zax of New Technology Review asked, “Is Personal Data the New Currency?” Right now, Zax conceded, “Facebook owns your data, and is able to monetize that data spectacularly.” True, the company let’s you “poke” around for free, but, for that privilege, Mark Zuckerberg “gets to be a multi-billionaire. Fair trade, right?”
Zax recalls that, back in 2010, Carnegie Mellon professor Latanya Sweeney told him, “There might emerge a social networking site where you still use the site for free, but if a company wants to use your data, they compensate you.” Within a year of Sweeney’s speculation, David Talbot reported in MIT Technology Review on Chime.in, a start-up offering users a platform to create pages about their own interests (photography, politics, travel, whatever). If the company succeeds, these pages will grow into a vast collection of online communities organized around specific affinities. Such a data set, company founders reason, will be irresistible to targeted advertising—so much so that advertisers will pay Chime.in for the data, and, in turn, the website will give each user a 50 percent commission on revenues and even offer users the option to sell their own ads.
Recently, other user-data-for-pay websites have been emerging. Singly, for instance, will allow users to aggregate their own data from social networks and purchase histories into a personal data locker, access to which the user exclusively controls. Unlike Chime.in, Singly will not pay users for their data. In fact, users will pay Singly for “API management” services, which, however, carry the promise of giving users powerful leverage to save money in a variety of ways, such as negotiating bargain health-care insurance by showing a prospective provider that you religiously work out at a gym and buy only healthy foods. Another company, YesProfile, invites users to build their personal profiles using their interests and preferences—products, services, hobbies, and so on—and make money by renting the profile to e-merchants, advertisers, and other brands. Users—whom YesProfile calls “owners”—control access.
Will these start-ups and others like them catch on? Serious marketers should be willing to invest in something bigger than the digital bread crumbs of Big Data. A consumer who is willing to reveal, in detail, exactly who she is and precisely what she wants delivers the whole loaf. If any number of these emerging personal data locker/data exchange enterprises succeed in scaling, Internet users really can become what YesProfile calls them: data owners. And as the company’s website puts it, “Unity makes strength.”