Yesterday, Facebook was taking flak again about services like FarmVille and Family Tree leaking personal information to advertising companies. Although in this case, Facebook has stated this is not desirable and is taking steps to deal with it, one has to wonder if we’re not generally too quick to blindly agree to our data being traded in. ‘The legal agreements set out below are agreed upon between you and…’ blah blah blah. There’s a lot more to iTunes’ user agreement, but you’ve probably already clicked ‘I agree’ anyway. There aren’t many who would bother to go through the entire, over 15,000 word agreement before they install the software onto their computers. And that goes for almost every application we want. We’re eager to click ‘OK’ in exchange for ‘free’ services.

But there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch: we certainly do pay for these things, and the new currency is privacy. Knowingly or otherwise, you’re giving an app or program permission to collect your data and pass it on it to third parties. That way, someone like an advertiser could create a profile of you. They know who you are, they know your interests, who your friends are, how much money you have and even where you are. And that information is worth a fortune.
“Normally, money used to be the main method of payment on the internet,” explains Danny Mekić, internet expert and jurist. “But many payment models for online services just don’t work. People aren’t willing to pay to read an article or watch a YouTube video. They’d rather pay nothing. So companies have been looking for new ways to make money.”

Social media
Changes in the ways we use the internet enable companies to use a new business model. “Right now it’s shifting to social media,” Mekic explains. “Hyves was already widely used in the Netherlands, but now Facebook and Twitter have become popular too. That generates large amounts of information. We’ve come to a point where the trade in our private information is becoming more and more common.”

In theory, to a large extent we’re responsible for that ourselves. The terms and conditions indicate what will happen to your private data. And even if people would read it all, they’d click ‘I agree’ anyway. “That’s probably because we aren’t entirely aware of the value of having privacy,” Mekic surmises. “There aren’t many cases of things like identity theft that the Dutch know about. That’s why we’re too quick to give up our privacy.”

Traffic light
To let people be more aware of what happens to their data, Mekic argues for a transparent system to make it immediately clear that your information is being collected and what’s done with it. “For films, we have a rating system that shows you what kind of film it is and what ages it’s suitable for. For financial advertisements, we have ratings indicating whether an investment would be high or low risk. The Netherlands should be the first country in the world to introduce a rating system for privacy risks on the internet.”
Mekic’s own idea would be a basic privacy traffic light. “A green icon for an app or service means your data isn’t shared, and an orange icon says it is, but you can easily opt out and see what’s being done with it. A red icon means you’re on thin ice and it would be a good idea to look up first what information is collected and who uses it.”

Such a system would also simultaneously put some pressure on manufacturers who make ‘red light applications’ and who trade extensively in our data. “Green light and orange light applications would be more appealing to users. That would force red light companies to rethink what they’re doing with their users’ data.”