I wrote this piece for the Tribune but the Yahoo! Microsoft hooha happened and so my piece on that went through instead. It might as well get an airing here instead:
Information and data have long been seen as commodities, on a par with oil and gold, yet these days while we have to dig down further for gold and oil will apparently dry up, data is becoming more and more abundant. Lots of this data contains intimate data about us. It is this data that makes Google and Facebook so valuable but now the EU as well as local data protection agencies are starting to question whether they have too much data. Are the EU the good guys though when they themselves want telecoms companies and Internet service providers to track what we do online for their own motives?
Everytime we go online we leave crumbs that can be used to figure out what we’re doing. With the increasing level of interaction with websites and with broadband usage going up we’re spending more time online and those crumbs are turning into whole loaves of information on what we’re doing. This data we leave is very valuable to companies such as Google who use the data they log on our searches to make the search experience better for us as well as using this data to display better ads to us which in turn means they can earn more money when we click on the ads. Facebook use the same idea but instead of search data they use the profile data we volunteer to them. Via Facebook advertisers can send very targeted ads to the 68 Million people on it. Many more websites and web services are basing their business models on the same idea of creating massmarket free services which in turn are paid for by gathering vast amounts of data on users which in turn are used to bother consumers with ads. Ad supported webservices when they have enough signed up users are worth billions, at least on paper.
The EU though is not very happy with the amount and type of information these services store. The EU say they worry for our privacy. Google are currently being investigated by the EU to see have they violated EU privacy laws because of the data they are logging and storing on European citizens. Google have tried to placate the EU by cutting down on the amount of time they store this information about people but so far that’s not enough and the investigation goes on. In the UK the Information Commissioner’s Office are investigating the way Facebook stores information on people and the length of time they retain it and whether they are violating privacy laws. All good. Nothing like healthy scepticism to keep commercial entities from abusing our rights and our privacy but there’s always a but. It appears that the European Commission themselves want as much data as they can about what we do online as well as who we communicate with on the phone. There seems to be a massive disconnect between what the EU allow commercial companies do with our data and what Europe is forcing commercial companies to log about us.
In 2006 the European Data Retention Directive was passed which mandates each EU country to introduce local laws for the storage of telephone data, email and web usage data. This was done for our own security apparently but it will be up to the telecoms companies and Internet service providers to monitor, secure and store the data and pay for it. So while the EU and local data commissioners are investigating commercial companies for storing usage data, the EU themselves are forcing other commercial companies to store usage data on consumers that they can use to monitor us. This Directive will be implemented in the next few weeks in Ireland and our phone and Internet providers will foot the bill, which more than likely will transfer to our own bills.
It doesn’t just affect the bills of businesses and consumers though. For smaller telcos and service providers, this will make a bigger impact to their bottom line. Data storage equipment and securing this data does not come cheap and for the likes of the smaller wireless Internet service providers that work in rural areas or areas where no other provider will go, they now have even more costs to worry about. While this directive is good business for data storage manufacturers, it is hard to see this as anything but a hindrance to smaller companies that supply Internet connectivity and could dissuade investment in the much needed local Internet service providers who are the only hope for many rural locations. We volunteer our data to Google and Facebook et al in return for free quality services that we can opt-out from at anytime. With Data Retention we can never opt-out and it will cost us all money. Big brother is not good for business.