Tim Berners-Lee has today been rightly defending the internet as a platform that should be kept free from snooping, but I fear he is swimming against a rising tide.
The creator of the web (and scourge of print media barons) is fighting against those who want to track and monetise user behaviour.
He was unveiled as the star witness at an event organised by privacy group NoDPI.org, and held at the UK’s Houses of Parliament. Berners-Lee found himself in the red corner and was up against Phorm CEO Kent Ertgrul, in the blue corner. The BBC has a good write up on it here.
Berners-Lee’s concerns about Big Brother are valid, and worrying. He doesn’t believe that ISPs should be able to watch user behaviour and pass it on to third parties - such as Phorm - even if the data is washed of all personal traces (surely an impossible task for an automated system to accomplish successfully).
“There will be a huge commercial pressure to release this data. I feel that it should just not be collected,” he argues.
“To allow someone to snoop on your internet traffic is to allow them to put a television camera in your room, except it will tell them a whole lot more about you than the television camera.”
The trouble is that there’s nothing new here, and there’s a lot of grey area.
Take internet stats firm Hitwise, for example, which has benefited from the willingness of at least one major ISP to release its data, allowing it to track consumer trends.
Then there’s Google. While it isn’t an ISP, it is an all-seeing eye. It has massive reach from Google Search, the Google Toolbar, and the likes of YouTube, from which it can collect – and make sense of – an astonishing amount of intention- and behavioural-based data.
As if to ram the point home in timely fashion, Google today released its ‘interest-based advertising’ programme. The key difference, other than Google’s lack of ISP status, is that it is handing over the power to consumers, who will be able to make use of various controls that help determine what is tracked (and as such what ads they see).
Personally, I think data is the absolute future of advertising. It is surely going to be the saviour of TV.
With TV advertising in steep decline, the immediate future appears to be bleak. But look a few years ahead and the way TV will be accessed / received will be different: it will be channelled via the internet, once broadband networks have been sufficiently upgraded.
As such IPTV will allow for a segmented approach to ad targeting, and there’s the opportunity for TV executives to roll-out a kind of Blyk model, whereby consumers trade off fixed subscription costs in return for data. That data will help advertisers better target their messages, something they traditionally pay a premium to be able to do.
I’m not sure where this leaves print media, but the future for TV – and digital advertising generally – is a lot brighter than we may think. It will be powered by technology innovation. The Phorm model could be considered one such innovation, though the execution leaves plenty to be desired.
And in a nut, that leads us onto the key problem, which remains one of trust. Without trust, there will be no buy-in from consumers. That’s the big issue here, not technology or the capturing of data by nefarious means. Data should be pushed out by consumers, in return for (better, cheaper, or entirely free) services.
Privacy can and should be controlled by the end-user, for incentives. It's that simple. Somebody will get this right before too long, and Google seems to be working along the right lines.
This is a game driven by money and results. Advertisers want efficiency. And publishers need money, and fast. They are increasingly starting to feel the effects of the downturn (like the TV sector, there is significant downward pressure on ad rates). In such an environment, if they’re presented with more effective ways of generating advertising revenue then I’m quite sure they’ll be tempted. It’s a great time to be rolling out data-driven ad technologies. Adoption is pretty much guaranteed.
Or, to put it another way, I’ll refer you to the question posed by renowned technology and media pundit Eddie Izzard: “Cake or death?”