November 23, 2015

By Joseph Titlebaum
Chief Legal and Privacy Officer

A group of academics, activists, business executives and entrepreneurs gathered at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts on November 16-17, 2015 for the second annual Data Transparency Lab (DTL) conference.  Sponsored by Telefonica, the Mozilla Foundation and others, the DTL is creating a forum for internet researchers to publicize their work, and for public policy advocates, technologists, academics and entrepreneurs to exchange views on the future of the internet.

As a digital entrepreneur with a strong interest in data, I was curious to learn whether the questions raised would be business opportunities, or merely be avenues for concern and potential regulation. To my surprise, many speakers touched on the same themes that are of major concern at digital marketing and adverting industry events: the need for increased trust and transparency in the digital world.

Heather West, of Mozilla, launched the event noting that the internet has evolved from being “user centric” to “data centric” and that it was striking how most people have come to depend on the background flow of data – through the use of a myriad of apps – in their daily lives. She went on to argue in favor of the development of data “best practices” such that new products and services would collect and use data leanly, productively and transparently.

Academic researchers tended to focus on the perspective of the individual internet user:  who is tracking me and why?  For example, Blaise Ur from Carnegie Mellon drew attention to the fact that many users are unaware that they are tracked on line and how targeted advertising works.  David Choffnes of Northeastern reviewed data tracking and sharing in the mobile context.   And Angel Cuevas of the Universidad Carlos II de Madrid considered possible ways to value the personal data of individual Facebook users. 

The question of data monetization is compelling: I met one entrepreneur at the DTL, Dawud Gordon of TwoSense, whose vision is to enable direct monetization by consumers of their personal data.  Yet Andres Gal, an entrepreneur and the former Chief Technology Officer of the Mozilla Foundation, questioned whether consumers were willing to give up the benefits of data tracking, in terms of the vast array of products and services financed by targeted advertising.  While studies continually suggest consumers value privacy, including a recent UPenn/Annenberg study, business has concluded that consumers want the benefits of data, through new and amazing apps, and have little daily interest understanding how the internet works, how their privacy is impacted, or who is making money along the way.  It’s a bit like our cars:  We like the convenience, but rarely bother to peer under the hood.

From the regulatory and public policy perspective, there was a general focus on the need to enable the benefits of data use, with a commitment to transparency and control.  Markus Heyder of the Center of Information Policy Leadership suggested the concept of “driverless privacy”:  We can’t burden the consumer constantly to make privacy/data tracking choices, yet there is a need to create a general level of trust.  Mei Lin Fung of Digital Dividends for All, took an expansive view of the possibilities created by the availability of vast amounts of internet data, and emphasized the goal of creating a “people centered internet” as we craft the policies governing the use of internet data. 

Business executives recognized the amazing accomplishment of the free, ad supported internet, and suggested that new profit –driven business models would need to emerge in order for businesses to be more focused on the downsides of data tracking.  Andres Gal thought that digital publishers, for example, might well benefit if advertising was based on context rather than targeted individuals – but wondered whether the content creators could lead a shift in the advertising marketplace.  And Allesandro De Sanche of News UK echoed Gal’s point in his lament of a “broken relationship” between media sites and users, which has generated demand for ad blockers and content blockers, and raised concerns around ad viewability and ad fraud. 

Somewhere between this optimism for an amazing data-driven future and pessimism regarding the amount and impact of data tracking lies a huge opportunity:  creating new business models that encourage data to be treated as valuable assets that underlie a trusted and transparent digital world.