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We need to put power back in the hands of the people online

We need to put power back in the hands of the people online

Credit: Alamy

Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy

Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy | Which?

5 min read Partner content

Facebook and Google's consumer data is worth billions. It’s time for "take back control" to apply to the online world too.

That large online platforms like Facebook and Google play an integral role in our daily lives is well understood. We use their sites to stay connected with loved ones, access vital services, ask questions about the world around us and shop. But it is the extent to which they dominate our lives that is often of most surprise to consumers. 

While online, we are frequently bombarded with adverts, some generic and others more targeted. Some people like receiving the targeted ones, especially if they can lead directly to a bargain. But many users don’t like seeing these ads, which can lead to that disconcerting sense of your every mouse click being under surveillance. Indeed, the more web users understand how that process works, the more uncomfortable they tend to feel. 

Upon learning the amount of personal data that is collected and used to target him ads, one Facebook user interviewed by Which? said: ‘Oh my God… it’s basically everyone… everything.’ 

Many people feel powerless in the face of these mighty tech companies, reluctantly accepting that handing over huge tranches of valuable data is “simply the price you pay” for using them. 

But how much is that price? In a groundbreaking piece of research, Which? set out to establish the value people place on their data on these websites. What if we were asked to pay a small fee to keep our online data to ourselves, or even offered rewards to hand it over and accept targeted ads? What would that be worth?

When we asked survey respondents whether, hypothetically, they would be willing to pay a monthly fee to only receive generic adverts and for their data not to be collected, the average figure was £1.09. Aggregated across all UK users of Google and Facebook gives an annual total for this choice of £1.14 billion. 

When asked to choose between receiving generic adverts or targeted ads and receiving a monthly reward - in the form of PayPal credit or an Amazon voucher - the average amount that users would be willing to accept was £4.03 per month. Aggregated across the UK, this gives an annual total estimated value of £4.21 billion. 

In the absence of any financial incentive, only a quarter (27%) of Google and Facebook users said they would prefer to receive targeted adverts. However, when a financial incentive was added, that figure went up to four fifths (81%). Unsurprisingly, the survey found that the larger the financial incentive, the more likely consumers were to choose targeted adverts. 

While it’s fascinating to get a clearer understanding of what consumers think a fair deal for their data should look like, it’s clear that there should be no obligation for anyone to get involved in such transactions as a condition of accessing the core service of online platforms that, given their strong market position, consumers find it most difficult to avoid using.

Many people feel powerless in the face of these mighty tech companies

Users should always have the right to choose not to receive targeted adverts, and platforms should have an obligation to provide their core service without collecting any data beyond what is absolutely necessary to fulfil the contract with the user.

This idea is not new. The Competition and Markets Authority has already given thought about what it might look like in practice. The proposed Choice Requirement Remedy (CRR) would require online platforms to give consumers the choice not to share their data for personalised advertising. 

The introduction of the CRR, then, would give consumers the informed choice over how much of their personal data is collected and how it is used. That, in turn, would improve users’ trust in the social networks they use every day. A separate Which? survey found that over half of respondents didn’t trust social networks. One third of them were unaware that Facebook tracks user activity on other websites and apps, while four fifths were unaware that Facebook matches profiles to customer lists uploaded by companies. 

Giving this greater control to consumers would have another, wider benefit: improving competition in the tech sector. Given the current nature of digital markets, it’s hard for smaller challengers to compete because the excessive data collection by Google and Facebook hands them an unfair advantage.

That means there’s a lack of viable alternatives. A consumer irked by how much of their data was being collected by Google, could change search engines to, say, DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t use personalised advertising, but Google’s data advantage means it can constantly improve its search results. Things are even worse in social media - it’s impossible to find a comparable alternative for Facebook.

The CRR would put the power back into the hands of consumers. Many in this government first won the backing of the British people with a pledge to take back control of their everyday lives - ministers should now press ahead with plans to do the same for ordinary people in their online lives.

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