The world is accelerating ahead, with digitalisation happening fast and on multiple levels. Data – your data – is quickly becoming the most valuable commodity of our time. At the turn of the century, the number of global Internet users hovered around 413 million. In 2016, that number increased nearly tenfold to over 3.4 billion.
Every day, billions of people log in to ‘the net’, a habit cemented by the necessity of search engines, and the pleasure-rewarding connectivity of social media platforms. In most of the developed world, being digitally connected is no longer a luxury, it is a form of survival – for work, travel, safety, and other lifestyle planning.
Cashless transactions and digital banking have already become the new norm. The pandemic has also shown us that stepping outside our homes is no longer necessary to carry on with life – online shopping and food delivery apps are there to save the day. From ordering an e-hailing ride to work, to looking for a restaurant suggestion for a date, tech companies run our world, and they know it.
Consider this: In 2018, Google processed more than 40,000 searches every second – that’s 3.5 billion searches per day. Just last year, Meta (formerly Facebook Inc) generated USD114.93 billion in advertising revenues, the largest contributor to the social network’s overall revenue. And while traditional businesses suffered at the height of the pandemic, online marketplaces like Amazon thrived; in 2021, Amazon reported a 22% increase in full-year net sales.
The ‘Big Fours’ of today’s tech world, also known as GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple), rake in millions of dollars each day from their services. Advertising revenue makes up a significant portion of that money coming in. This is particularly so in the case of service-oriented platforms, such as Google and Facebook, whose only ‘product’ is the free platform they provide to users like you and me.
It begs the question then – is the platform truly ‘free’ if user data is freely exchanged amongst third parties and businesses? There is a keen observation and expression: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re probably the product.” Without a doubt, personal data is the recognised and approved currency of today. In exchange for its maintenance, Silicon Valley has sold the most valuable commodity you never even knew you owned.
But the tides are turning. As our most private preferences float freely around ‘the net’, data protection has become a hot topic for discussion amongst the global community. Data privacy is increasingly seen as a human right. Governments are pursuing new laws that hold companies accountable for the way data is handled.
Authorities however, though well-meaning, struggle to keep up. While privacy is recognised as a fundamental human right under the UN Declaration of Human Rights, data privacy sits in a more complex area. It congregates in an uncertain territory that’s constantly evolving thanks to shifts in technology. The cat-and-mouse game between regulators and tech titans continues till this day, costing millions of dollars in lawyer fees, public resources, and time.
Nevertheless, increasing consumer awareness and pressure are pushing tech companies to change. Last year, Apple introduced a pop-up window for iPhones that allowed users to decline being tracked by their apps. Google recently outlined plans to introduce “Apple-like” privacy features, by limiting the sharing of data across apps and third-party websites. And Facebook shared that hundreds of its engineers are exploring a way to show ads without relying on personal data.
These changes point to an important trend: consumers are becoming more aware of what their data is worth, and are not afraid to vocalise their concerns. Companies slow to act must pay the price, and the cost could mean more than a hefty fine – it could signify the decline of an entire brand or business model.
As the digital ecosystem matures, both businesses and regulators must contend with what an increasing reliance on ‘the net’ will mean to consumers – not only on an economic and political level, but on a wider social and evolutionary level.