If Information Is Free, Who Is Paying?

Free information is everywhere: every two years, the amount of information in the world doubles. This information is also being processed faster and faster: In 2003, with the technology available at the time, it would take about 10 years to sequence the human genome. In 2013, it took only about 23 days. At a time when information is so readily available to anyone on the planet, the question has to be asked: ‘What’s the catch?’

You are what you click

Internet users cannot hide from the fact that their every move is monitored by a number of data hungry corporations, who are being taught that more data means better financial performance. An estimated $242 million was spent last year funding new techniques that pioneer ‘predictive analysis’, technologies which anticipate customers’ future purchases.

Companies also turn to the private lives of their customers, sifting through a vast number of Tweets (over 300 million a day worldwide) for new ways to improve their public image. Perhaps even more alarmingly, companies are being encouraged to share information with each other in order to gain a better understanding of the different markets they represent: EMI Music are reliant on the information of Spotify’s 3 million users to target their market spending. The scale of the information industry then appears to be putting the safety of the user into question.

Some technologies, like virtual data rooms, allow you to remain anonymous while reviewing sensitive information so no one can see what you do.

If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product…

… Although the origin of the quote is debatable, currently, information seems to come at the expense of privacy. Only last month, Google came under pressure from the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to provide ‘unambiguous and comprehensive information regarding data processing’, following concerns over a lack of transparency in its data protection laws. And it seems there has been no person left untouched by a recent Apple vs U.S. Government scandal described in the Apple’s open letter to its customers published here. But for internet users to be able to browse the web without feeling intruded, more clearly needs to be done to alter the mentality that ‘If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product’.

Two main issues arise with the enforcement of data protection legislation. Firstly, it is difficult to harmonize privacy laws between continents: unlike the US, the EU requires across-the-board rules for explicit consent on the use of an individual’s data. Secondly, the growth of the internet simply cannot be contained by a fixed set of guidelines, and with new technical advances, legislation becomes obsolete, and governments continually find themselves one step behind. And so the conundrum remains.

Meeting the challenges of free information

Several ‘easy to fix’ solutions to the privacy issue are being considered. One which is likely to be adopted by Google in the near future is that of ‘privacy preference profiles’, whereby the user can alter the extent to which his or her browsing habits are recorded and analyzed, with the potential to ‘opt­-out’ of any data recording. ‘Data portability’ is a similar concept which would force organizations to provide individuals with access to their own data in portable form and allow them to modify or delete this data.


Expert’s opinion
Anna Volfman, M&A expert

With all the mentioned above challenges, it is certainly getting more and more difficult to keep in privacy highly sensitive information: there have been many cases when companies like Google were suspected of gathering confidential information and selling it to so-called data aggregation companies. The information about M&A transactions would certainly make a great value for them.

However, parties involved in M&A transactions typically do not wish their information to be accessed by somebody else. As the vendor, we are obligated to ensure both security and privacy of all transactions implemented through iDeals Virtual Data Room platform.

Virtual data rooms (VDRs) are being increasingly used to facilitate the due diligence process ­- the VDR industry is expected to grow from $628 million in 2012 to $1.2 trillion by 2017. For reasons of cost, efficiency, and security, they are now usually preferred to the more common (and less secure) ways of sharing information.


Then there are the more innovative proposals. Google have recently launched a new service, Google Contributor: customers can pay a small monthly fee to have all advertisements on the websites of their partners removed. The proposition is based on the idea of MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman who, in a recent essay called ‘The Internet’s Original Sin’, argued that ‘users will pay for the services that they love’.
But it seems ironic that even the internet, born out of a desire to pass information freely around the globe, and boosted by the culture of open source and freeware, is increasingly conveying that all too familiar message: nothing comes without a price. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch ­but, unlike many data companies, at least at a restaurant you’re told what you’re eating and how much you’re paying for it.

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