/ Technology

Online advertisers should pay for our personal data

Woman surprised by money coming out of laptop

Online advertisements individually target you by gathering data about your browsing behaviour. But would you be more willing to accept this intrusion if the companies making a fast buck paid for the privilege?

The US Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) thinks online marketing companies should do just that, while also setting out the five tech trends to watch out for in 2011.

Predictably, privacy tops its list. In my decade and a half as a technology journalist the debate about technology and privacy has been a constant.

One of the biggest rows to erupt was over the introduction of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. The Act gave government and security organisations the right to snoop on electronic communications in cases where they suspected criminal activity – i.e. a terrorist plot.

On principle, I wasn’t keen on the idea, but the argument for it was ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, why worry.’ True, to an extent.

Data mining is solid gold for businesses

Ten years on, times have changed and today personal information is solid gold. And, like it or not, you’re handing that information over, for gratis, every day.

Non-functional cookies used for behavioural marketing lurk on many websites. These tiny bits of software collect information about your shopping habits among other things. They’ll know, for instance, that I’m a gadget freak, have a penchant for expensive stationery and love reading.

By collecting this data, online marketing companies can serve up targeted adverts. The companies behind these are keen to point out that the data they’re collecting isn’t personal to me – it’s not actually linked to me, editor of Which? Computing, mum of one and so on.

They like to argue that their targeted online ads are no different to the washing powder ads punctuating Coronation Street, which are based on the knowledge of who watches the soap.

What’s in it for me?

I’m not ashamed of my hobbies but I do object to companies collecting that information without my say-so. For me, this is distinctly different to a company like Amazon suggesting books based on my previous reading habits. The difference is, I’ve decided to register as a customer on Amazon.

Similarly, I’m not fussed about Tesco monitoring my buying habits via my loyalty card, providing I can swap the points for restaurant vouchers, or family days out. At least I’m getting something out of the relationship and, in the current climate, every little helps.

From May this year the government will amend UK Law to be in line with European law and this could mean that you’ll have to agree to these behavioural cookies. But I’d be far more likely to agree to them if the online marketing companies offered to pay me a royalty for the information they scour from me.

xavier izaguirre says:
26 October 2010


Targeted online advertising has been a great success in the industry, creating a situation where everybody wins. I am an advertiser and benefit from higher and more effective rates, but as a consumer I benefit too finding products that interest me. I still have traumas from silly commercials I watched when I was a kid. And I still cringe when I see “loose weight” ads ( I am very thin ). As a whole, we also benefit the economy.

As for privacy, the data is collected and used at an aggregate level, and by the way, we are too busy to spy on your hobbies, even if that was technically possible.

Hope this helps

Graham Chilton says:
26 October 2010

No organisation shouldbe allowed to share personal information–be they government ( eg DVLA ) or any commercial enterprise. I would not agree to data sharing even if offered an incentive—which is likely to be paltry anyway. Furthermore, sharing between branches of the same organisation should also be illegal

I use cookie controls to decide who gets my information. If nothing else it means that ‘they’ get an incomplete picture.

To be honest I get more annoyed with the companies that quite legally farm any details that anyone cares to tell them about you then quite legally sells it on to anyone who will pay them for it.

Yup. I’m talking about you, Experian.