The past few weeks saw a series of news articles that focused consumer concern around personal data use (and misuse). Recently, it was revealed that email service Unroll.me anonymously used consumer email data to give companies like Uber visibility into subscriber spending habits. While there was nothing illegal in Unroll.me’s use of data, seeing that its privacy agreement explicitly allowed such usage, it nevertheless surprised and alarmed consumers.
As it happens, this news came on the heels of the President and Congress reversing the previous administration’s proposed FCC privacy protections. With the new law, service providers are now free to collect and sell customer data to advertiser’s surrounding a customer’s internet usage.
The internet data trade
A wider reality is that the consumer internet is built on the trade of personal data. On the internet, the term “free” is rarely without strings attached considering ad supported internet services are powered by trade for personal data. Now in most, if not all, cases the personal data is de-identified of unique individual identifiers. Nevertheless, the consumer internet is built on advertising and advertising depends on personal data for targeting. What’s new is that now personal data value has decoupled from any dependency to advertisers. Personal data now has its own intrinsic value to data buyers, as the Unroll.me example revealed.
The big problem with small print
Generally speaking, consumers have some awareness that the internet services they use rely on advertising which in turn depends on their personal data. They may not always like it, but in general they assent to this quid pro quo in exchange for the services they value. The challenge for consumers, however, is that the scope of use around personal data is not always clear and often hidden behind legal terms and conditions or consent agreements that bury details in fine print. Moreover, the use of personal data beyond advertising remains less familiar to most consumers and more concerning.