We need to embrace a new era of maturity
A new construct for consumers is required, but it mustn’t detract from the opportunities that await.
“It’s the end of the data boom”. This was one of the many headlines to have emerged over the last month or so as the criticism of big data companies swelled. We’ve come a long way since Amazon was regarded as a minor bookseller, and Facebook “wasn’t a business”. In those days, the term “big data” had barely entered the public realm, and digital commerce was still a minority sport. As the pipelines were laid for transporting the data required to fuel this emerging economy, the power of broadband unfurled. And so began the sea change in the processing and application of data that happened under the noses of legislators and regulators who were able, some say, to see the benefits but unprepared for the consequences. Now there are widespread calls for intervention in order, we’re told, to protect consumers yet keep the market free and enable further innovation.
Any industry that wishes to endure, to maintain the social contract inferred with the community it inhabits or the society it affects, has to recognise, and respond to public disquiet.
Yet such a glib narrative doesn’t tell the complete story. Consumers implicitly, often explicitly, have accepted that the commercial exchange of their own data for services received was a contract they were happy to live with. Data being sold to third parties was nothing new. Advertising experienced as a result of online viewing was annoying, but not much more so than that seen on TV, or in newspapers and magazines. Moreover, we are now no longer talking of a digital economy as a discrete market sector. Every aspect of our economy is in the process of digital transformation, with major ‘prizes’ to be won across the spectrum of commercial and public sector activities. This economy will be powered by data, and the expertise of data specialists of every size and type will be engaged.
Already we have seen Amazon forming partnerships to look at increasing efficiency in healthcare. (Facebook is reported to have suspended its own healthcare project in the light of the current enquiries). This requires a consensus on the appropriate use of data that balances the rights of consumers with the benefits both to individuals and society. Too much restriction, and the opportunities for many advances, diminish. Too free with data, and consent (and trust) is diminished, with unintended consequences possibly well beyond the immediate platform/consumer transaction.
The benefits of horizontal regulation have been widely discussed in IIC forums in the last year and continue to be a key focus. Data is one case in particular where the approach must be right. With traditional sectoral boundaries discarded, regulators and policymakers will be free to take account of broader implications, including the ethical challenges presented by the most potent data applications.
In Europe the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force later this month. It recognises the rights of consumers to exercise control over their personal data and places a series of obligations on organisations holding that data. Elsewhere, an inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) into the power of digital platforms is currently under way, with its conclusions keenly awaited- with perhaps potential for tighter oversighting or fresh regulation.
It is now widely recognised that change is going to be necessary if public and policy concerns are to be addressed… and harmonised. Getting it right will be critical to the future success of the digital economy world and the data industry. If it’s been late in coming, let us now be clear – it’s time too for the ‘unfetteredness’ of the data boom to end, and data maturity to begin.
President, International Institute of Communications
- Wednesday, 02 May 2018