One of the most common observations made to me during interviews about data and privacy is that the genie is out of the bottle. What that implies is that the combination of pervasive digital technology plus the widespread adoption of services like search and social networks equals an acceptance by us all that utility is more important than privacy.
The active user base of major platforms, from Facebook and Snapchat to Twitter and Instagram, suggests the desire to be on these networks outweighs any concerns about how personal information is being captured and monetised. That would be a reasonable assumption if there was a genuine choice for users, such as between a private or public version or ad-free subscription versus ad-supported free services.
Instead, there is a single business model in operation across all of these new services. In it, users have accepted terms which they are unlikely to have read - fewer than 1% according to one academic study. What happens is that they become aware of the commercialisation of their data once they have invested time and effort. This commitment is what stops even those who object from quitting outright. Unless there is a significant event, such as a data breach, data-driven companies (especially if they are US-based) can rely on this inertia to sustain their user base.
Technology vendors are the most prone to stating that, since this data genie has already been released, they bear no responsibility for choosing to make use of its magic powers. That is only to be expected - any business inhabits its specific context at a given time. Right now, that means a big data free-for-all with tighter controls only just coming over the horizon and, even then, only in the EU. The US has yet to make its big move at a federal level towards acknowledging the need for data protection as a minimum and privacy as a human right.
News that the European Commission now has “over the top” internet services in its sights could well change all that. One suggestion is that social networks should be treated in the same way as internet service providers when it comes to security and data monetisation. In other words, insisting that the genie keep at least one foot in the bottle. There will be strong pushback from existing players once consultations begin, but as it has already shown with GDPR, the EU is not afraid of getting ahead of global opinion on this issue.
More importantly, I believe, at least some consumers are looking for ways to use technology against itself and force out some of the more intrusive or privacy-eroding aspects of the services they use. Ad blocking softare is a prime example with over one-third of mobile phone users having installed such an app. The response by some platforms has been very short-term indeed - Facebook has banned ad blockers, but says it will be giving users more controls over ad content.
There comes a point when this type of protectionist approach to an existing business model gets harder to defend that making the leap into a new disruptive approach. Consider wind power and how what once was treated as idealistic has become mainstream.
Technology may have released the data genie from its bottle. But that may just be so it can be poured into a new set of glasses.