Who owns your data? Who has access to it? How is it being used? Can it, will it, ever be used against you? How is data being managed? And can data ever discriminate? These were some of the important questions raised at a recent debate hosted in London by The Foundation, an independent growth and innovation consultancy.
Information is multiplying and in many ways is making life simpler and more convenient, but, according to Charlie Dawson, founding partner at The Foundation, people are becoming more and more aware that their entire lives can be "captured, examined and publicised" and so "consequences are starting to emerge", he warned.
Claire Valoti, director of agency partnerships at Facebook UK, argued that tech companies such as Facebook are on a continuous learning curve and are always improving. While privacy concerns may not have been at the forefront of Facebook's agenda in its genesis, the business is now "based on a privacy-based environment", Valoti said. An environment that enables users to adjust their privacy settings to suit their needs, she added. While the theme of the night was about privacy Valoti pointed out that Facebook tends to "steer away from privacy" rhetoric preferring instead to "talk about safety: what will create a safe environment for our users?" she said.
"Twenty nine million people come to Facebook every day" with some users logging in "at least 14 times a day" thus "Facebook are not forcing people" to come to the site, "we do have choices" and millions of people choose to engage with the social media platform, Valoti declared.
Of course "there is a value exchange" at play when people use Facebook, Valoti said. Such "value" might consist of better personalisation, more convenience or tailored discounts in "exchange" for consumers' data. And later, when asked by a member of the audience, to elaborate on what the "value exchange" is, Valoti said "we don't want to make it seem like a cost. We want to make it seem like a good experience". But should Facebook and indeed other online services be more transparent and explicit about the "cost" of using its "free" service? One audience member reminded those present that "if you're not paying for it, you are the product".
Eager for people to "focus on the good", Valoti discussed Facebook's internet.org initiative, a consortium that aims to get the world's population online, because, according to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's co-founder and CEO, "connectivity is a human right". Further, Valoti pointed to the important role the platform plays in raising money for charities. In particular she pointed to the ice bucket challenge which aimed to raise awareness for the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association. The campaign invited people to throw a bucket of ice-cold water over themselves and share the footage on social media sites such as Facebook. The idea went viral with hundreds of celebrities taking part and has raised millions of dollars for the US charity.
And Valoti relayed the story of how the social networking site can and has played a central role in helping to find missing children. "Being more open you have a lot of things that can happen", she said.
Lastly she admitted that there are obstacles and challenges, particularly in "how to manage the data" but that Facebook is learning and that the organisation does endeavour to be "mindful and responsible".
To counter Valoti's argument that "being more open" is good, Carly Nyst, an independent human rights lawyer and consultant, cautioned that people should be very wary of how much data they are sharing with corporations and government.
Nyst began by pointing out that the right to privacy is a human right, that came into being in 1948, after the second world war, and one that is explicitly stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Thus "the right to privacy is about control", Nyst declared. So while Valoti believes people do have choices, Nyst insisted that there is a major difference between choice and "informed" choice. "Choice has to be informed", she stated, otherwise it can be deemed meaningless. "Ten years ago Facebook users didn't have a choice because we didn't know; we didn't have knowledge" about what they were doing with users' data, she argued. And Nyst highlighted the incident in 2014 where Facebook conducted a secret study involving nearly 700,000 users in which their friends' news feeds were manipulated – removing either all the positive posts or all the negative posts to see how it influenced their moods. News of the experiment resulted in negative PR but despite this the social networking site remains a key feature in many peoples' lives.
While Nyst conceded that Facebook's approach to users' data has "matured", and that the company "is learning" she insisted that Facebook and its peers are nonetheless still "playing catch-up".
Thus Nyst's main argument was that issues around privacy are always "about control" and, as such, use of Facebook "has to be based on informed understanding" and "informed choices". In her closing remarks Valoti admitted that perhaps she hadn't put enough focus on the importance of "informed" choice and said the evening's debate meant she would put more emphasis on that.
A Q&A session followed with one member of the audience raising a question about data discrimination whereby some people could be treated differently based on their digital trail – for example an individual might be charged more for (or perhaps denied) health or motor insurance, depending on what details their data trail reveals. Another member of the audience proposed putting traffic light style signals on digital data, similar to how the Food Standards Agency in the UK has implemented colour coding on packaging to inform people about the amount of fat and salt in food. A red light, for example, could indicate the data should not be shared with a third party or green could suggest it's ok to share it with the government: "it's about education, informed choice and consent," he said.
The issue of privacy is an important and challenging one. The issues underlying privacy are even more important – power, choice, control and consent. Without doubt the digital world is fascinating and complex in equal measure and, with the emergence of the Internet of Things, the privacy debate will run and run. For now at least there are more questions than there are answers. But there is one thing that we can be fairly sure about – the brands that handle their consumers' data with due care and respect, those that reciprocate transparency, will be the ones that are likely to enjoy an enduring relationship with their customers.