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Personal data consent: say yes – or else!

How can there be so incredibly much data on the internet yet so little choice for consumers? The internet is huge. There is so much stuff on it that it is simply mind boggling. Still, when we talk to consumers, they say that they have no choice. That might seem like a paradox but it really isn’t. Here’s why:

crowded street
Michael Björn 

Head of Research Agenda and Quality at Consumer & IndustryLab

Category, topic & hashtags

Around this time last year, 2.5 quintillion bytes were added every day. Do you even know how many zeroes there are in a quintillion? I don't, and I have a Ph.D. in a math-related field. Still, that number is even higher today. On the mobile side, we predict that traffic will grow 45 percent per year between 2016 and 2020, resulting in 10 times more traffic generated by smartphones in that timeframe.

But consumers are not complaining about the lack of content. Data is not only the content you consume. More specifically, data is also personal behavioral information, and this is something consumers are telling us that they are forced to give up, in order to browse a web site for example, or to download an app of some sort. And in this they are saying they have no choice.

It seems many if not most of those who provide content want access to personal data, in order to model or otherwise predict your behavior in order to monetize it. In her new book "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism", Shoshana Zuboff who is Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School calls this behavioral surplus. Essentially, she is saying that although some of the data collected about the user of a product or service is indeed applied to improvement of that product or service, the rest of it is claimed by the company as behavioral surplus and used to generate extra profit. And she then goes on at length to describe that extra profit basically as printing free money.

However, there is of course at least one cost involved, namely the written agreements and contracts that everyone needs to accept in order to use the product or service. As consumers, we are offered the opportunity to read what we agree to and have the choice not to use the service or product should we not agree.

But, as Zuboff points out, there is a small catch here. Already in 2008, two Carnegie Mellon professors figured out that it would take you 76 full workdays to read all the privacy policies that you would encounter in a year. And that's not just any year; that was ten years ago. It would be reasonable to assume that this number has skyrocketed since then.

In fact, I believe that you, dear reader, would need more than what is left of 2019 to read all those agreements you personally agreed to in 2018. So, have fun and maybe talk to you in 2020, if you are finished reading by then. Or, maybe, you will just not read them. Up to you of course.

Did you suddenly feel like all the big information and communications companies in the world were employing all the world's best lawyers against you, as an individual? Well, you are maybe not alone. Our research shows, unsurprisingly, that people don't think this practice is fair.

That is why one of our key consumer trends for 2019 is about Enforced Agreement. Turning such a trend into a shaming and blaming exercise might be an easy thing, but that wouldn't really solve the issue. Instead, we try to highlight the fact that there could be an easy way out: More than half of the respondents think there should be a single standardized agreement that all companies would have to use, allowing a choice over which level of personal data use consumers accept. That would reduce the time needed to spend on reading user agreements, privacy policies and whatever they are all called to something manageable. It would also mean that there would be plenty of advice available on how to interpret it all once you have read the text and still don't understand it.

So far that isn't happening, although only as few as 8 percent are comfortable with always having to accept cookies and data collection. If you think about it, collection of all this data must indeed be quite profitable, if companies are totally OK with the vast majority of the users of their products and services not being comfortable with what they are forced into. It certainly can't be the easiest way to create trust. Instead, in our survey, 46 percent of consumers say that having to agree to so much makes agreement enforced and worthless.

So, here we are. Consumers keep on clicking yes on all these agreements, while at the same time being pushed into a corner and feeling helpless about the whole situation.

Except something just happened. On February 7th, Germany's Federal Cartel Office ruled that Facebook is misusing its market dominance to force consumers into agreeing to unrestricted data collection of non-Facebook data in order to have an account. So from now on, that won't be allowed in Germany. In practical terms, and if the ruling holds, it means that the Germans have outlawed business models based on enforced consumer agreement to data collection.

On the one hand that is quite astounding. On the other, it mirrors the argumentation put forth in our trend work, up to the point where we conclude that 47 percent think the internet needs a new business model beyond advertising.

We think that Enforced Agreement will continue to be a very hot topic in 2019. What do you believe?

Find out more insights from Ericsson ConsumerLab's 10 Hot Consumer Trends for 2019 here, and let us know how you think the discussion about consumer data will develop.

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