How Much Do You Really Care About Your Online Data?

6 July 2015

“If you ask anyone how much they care about their online data, and its privacy, they are likely to say they care a lot. But if you ask them whether they would open their wallets to pay for the many services they currently use for free, some would likely answer yes, and many no. In my experience, asking those on the yes side how much they would be prepared to pay tends to draw the answer that a flat fee such as a fiver or a tenner would be OK, (remembering that most apps cost less than this).”

But is it that easy? Online services are expensive to maintain and to adapt as the quality of the services constantly increases in tandem with evolving technology.

Dr Kevin Koidl, Research Fellow in the School of Computer Science and Statistics at Trinity College Dublin and the ADAPT Research Centre, argues that the perceived concern about losing control of our online data is actually far smaller than the desire to control our purse strings.

“To understand the value of your data a bit more you can perform a simple but very powerful calculation; you can take the market cap of each online service that you enjoy using free of charge, and then check via a simple search query what the average number of active registered users of that service is. By dividing those two numbers you will have a fair approximation of what the perceived (by market approximation) value of your data is, for that specific service. Some companies also make money with other services not directly linked to your data, but the calculation should be sufficiently accurate to give you a fair idea. All you need to do now is do this across all services you use on a regular basis (email, social media, video, music, browsing etc.) and then sum the pieces. This is what you would have to pay, on average per year, for all the services you currently use for free. My number was close to four digits, just to give you a ballpark idea.”

“So this brings us to the most important question in this debate: Would you rather pay this sum or continue using online services free of charge by consenting to your data being used by third-party companies for use in advertisement, marketing and promotion campaigns? Despite society shouting out loud about its privacy concerns, I suspect the vast majority of us fall into the latter pool.”

“For me, like many other things in life, this is what this debate comes down to at the end of the day: money. We should certainly not be blasé about the use of personal online data; indeed, there are several simple – and in some case, complex – issues that need to be addressed, both on the legal side and on the services side. However, we often forget that we are talking about great services that we take for granted, and for which we pay very little (or no) money. Someone has to pay, and at the moment it is our data that foots the bill.”

“For me this is fine, but that’s easy for me to say as I work in that research field and run a college spin-out in the web personalization space. However, if you don't like what is happening with your data, and if you think you are not alone, you might consider offering an alternative service that charges its users and keeps their personal data behind lock and key. If you are thinking about doing this please let me know, as I think it would be a very interesting experiment. I might even help you build it. However, I suspect that maintaining free services will win the battle, but I would not mind to be proven wrong.”

A modified version of this expert comment appeared in The Journal on Friday, July 3.

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