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GDPR day has come and gone, and the world is still turning, just about. Some remarked that it was like the Y2K day we never had; whereas the latter’s impact was a somewhat damp squib, the former has caused more of a kerfuffle: however much the authorities might say, “It’s not about you,” it has turned out that it is about just about everyone in a job, for better or worse.
I like the thinking behind GDPR. The notion that your data was something that could be harvested, processed, bought and sold, without you having a say in the matter, was imbalanced to say the least. Data monetisers have been good at following the letter of the law whilst ignoring its spirit, which is why its newly expressed spirit — of non-ambiguous clarity and agreement — that is so powerful.
Meanwhile, I don’t really have a problem with the principle of advertising. A cocktail menu in a bar could be seen as context-driven, targeted marketing, and rightly so as the chances are the people in the bar are going to be on the look-out for a cocktail. The old adage of 50% of advertising being wasted (but nobody knows which 50%) helps no-one so, sure, let’s work together on improving its accuracy.
The challenge, however, comes from the nature of our regulatory processes. GDPR has been created across a long period of time, by a set of international committees with all of our best interests at heart. The resulting process is not only slow but also and inevitably, a compromise based on past use of technology. Note that even as the Cambridge Analytica scandal still looms, Facebook’s position remains that it acted within the law.
Even now, our beloved corporations are looking to how they can work within the law and yet continue to follow the prevailing mantra of the day, which is how to monetise data. This notion has taken a bit of a hit, largely as now businesses need to be much clearer about what they are doing with it. “We will be selling your information” doesn’t quite have the same innocuous ring as “We share data with partners.”
To achieve this, most attention is on what GDPR doesn’t cover, notably around personal identifiable information (PII). In layperson’s terms, if I cannot tell who the specific person is that I am marketing to, then I am in the clear. I might still know that the ‘target’ is a left-leaning white male, aged 45-55, living in the UK, with a propensity for jazz, an iPhone 6 and a short political fuse, and all manner of other details. But nope, no name and email address, no pack-drill.
Or indeed, I might be able to exchange obfuscated details about a person with another provider (such as Facebook again), which happen to match similarly obfuscated details — a mechanism known as hashing. As long as I am not exchanging PII, again, I am not in breach of GDPR. Which is all well and good apart from the fact that it just shows how advertisers don’t need to know who I am in order to personalise their promotions to me specifically.
As I say, I don’t really have a problem with advertising done right (I doubt many people do): indeed, the day on which sloppy retargeting can be consigned to the past (offering travel insurance once one has returned home, for example) cannot come too soon. However I do have a concern, that the regulation we are all finding so onerous is not actually achieving one of its central goals.
What can be done about this? I think the answer lies in renewing the contractual relationship between supplier and consumer, not in terms of non-ambiguity over corporate use of data, but to recognise the role of consumer as a data supplier. Essentially, if you want to market to me, then you can pay for it — and if you do, I’m prepared to help you focus on what I actually want.
We are already seeing these conversations start to emerge. Consider the recent story about a man selling his Facebook data on eBay; meanwhile at a recent startup event I attended, an organisation was asked about how a customer could choose to reveal certain aspects of their lifestyle, to achieve lower insurance premiums.
And let’s not forget AI. I’d personally love to be represented by a bot that could assess my data privately, compare it to what was available publicly, then perhaps do some outreach on my behalf. Remind me that I needed travel insurance, find the best deal and print off a contract without me having to fall on the goodwill of the corporate masses.
What all of this needs is the idea that individuals are not simply hapless pawns to be protected (from where comes the whole notion of privacy), but active participants in an increasingly algorithmic game. Sure, we need legislation against the hucksters and tricksters, plus continued enforcement of the balance between provider and consumer which is still tipped strongly towards “network economy” companies.
But without a recognition that individuals are data creators, whose interests extend beyond simple privacy rights, regulation will only become more onerous for all sides, without necessarily delivering the benefits they were set out to achieve.
P.S. Cocktail, anyone? Mine’s a John Collins.
Follow @jonno on Twitter.