Why I disagree with Sir Tim Berners-Lee

The data we create about ourselves should be owned by each of us not by the large companies that harvest it, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world-wide-web, said yesterday.

The data we create about ourselves should be owned by each of us not by the large companies that harvest it, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world-wide-web, said yesterday. Sir Tim is right… to an extent. And he certainly has every good reason to question the way many businesses use our data. However, where I disagree with Sir Tim is that rather than preventing companies’ access to data, I see the decision of sharing data to be a matter of trust and relevancy between consumer and business.

Sir Tim’s talk at the IP Expo Europe raised some important questions about who benefits from the public’s data. At GBG, we are championing the cause for organisations to be more responsible and transparent in their use of data. It’s also important to ensure that companies only hold relevant data in the first place. Too many get caught out holding banks of irrelevant data on customers. That has to stop.

Encouraging people to be aware of the value of their data is also of the utmost importance. When people understand the value of what they are sharing with the companies they do business with, they can be much more demanding over how it is used. 

It’s a shared responsibility. Think of data like cash: when I go into a bank and deposit my hard earned savings, I’m effectively ‘lending’ the bank my asset in the good faith that it will be used and worked in such a way as it will not only profit the bank – but also create real tangible value for me. It’s the same with data. The information I share through my applications, interactions and communications online is effectively an asset I choose to share with my chosen organisations. If they use it to their benefit, that’s fine - as long as I also derive a clear value from this process. Relevant communications, preferential treatment (or pricing) and a general sense of being ‘understood’ are all good by me. But the minute I sense that asset is being abused or at least used purely for the business’ benefit, I’ll shut down my account, go on Twitter and complain – very loudly! Effectively, it’s the equivalent of walking into the bank and withdrawing my aforementioned savings.

But I do think it’s actually a little naïve to suggest that organisations shouldn’t own data. Many companies do bring real value to the customer through the intelligent use of data, and I don’t just mean sending ‘personalised’ marketing collateral that starts with ‘Hello [INSERT FIRST NAME], I have a product which may be of interest to you’.

A lot of services we take for granted are founded on ‘identity intelligence’.  We all appreciate it when our credit card company analyses spending patterns and contacts us to query a potentially fraudulent transaction. That sort of thing doesn’t happen without good data capture, verification and analysis tools. Or imagine if the 34 million people who had a flutter on this year’s Grand National could no longer use Sir Tim’s Web to do so because there was no way to age verify them?

The whole world is getting smarter – in the future, whole cities will be controlled through smart sensors that react according to our energy consumption patterns and needs. But what underpins it all is an open and intelligent exchange of data between consumer and business. 
I understand Sir Tim’s point, but I really do believe that we need to move the debate on from a tug of war between consumers and ‘badly-intentioned, faceless companies’, to one about trust and relevancy. Many businesses bring genuine value through their use of data. By encouraging consumers to understand the value of this data, we can help to build trust with the businesses that do manage data responsibly, and part ways with the ones that don’t. 

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