Trading data with online media

David Mitchell has (as usual) a good article in today’s Observer, on the subject of the commercial market for personal data. It will save me a lot of copying and pasting if you simply go and read the article before coming back to this one, but one section struck such a chord with me that I am going to quote it here. Reflecting on the fact that our online behaviour is increasingly tracked and advertising is increasingly targetted to us based on what the advertisers know, Mitchell comments

We’re divided in our responses to this. Some unthinkingly share everything about their lives from their relationship status, through drunken pictures of themselves, to their opinion on a new chocolate bar. They want to yell their identity in a continuous screech of affirmation. Others are mindful of the new media saw that if something’s free then you’re not the customer, you’re the product.

Oddly, I think the former group get a better deal. They receive something in return for their information: an activity they enjoy. Meanwhile the latter bunch are stuck. It’s increasingly fruitless to try and withhold everything about yourself from the ruthless corporate grid.

I’m inclined to agree with this. I’ve written elsewhere about why targetted advertising is actually a good thing, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with publishers (like the Observer website where Mitchell’s articles can be read at absolute no charge to me or you) making money on the back of targetted advertising. Again, as I’ve said before, it’s targetting which makes Internet advertising worthwhile, for both advertisers and publishers.

Mitchell concludes his article by saying

There’s an irresistible market for our data but that doesn’t necessarily make us the product – it could make us traders. […] The parasitism of corporations snooping on us could become a symbiosis, in which information is freely surrendered in exchange for something concrete: say a garden gnome. Or, you know, adverts that are actually useful because they offer things we want to buy and ways of doing so more cheaply.

This is the difference between a market and a war. In a war, if the other side wants something you’ve got, you definitely want to withhold it. If that happens in a market, and if you can strike the right deal, it’s an opportunity to make everyone better off.

(Sorry, that’s two quotes, but what the heck, I didn’t promise consistency)

I entirely agree with that, too. I don’t fall into either of the groups described by Mitchell in the first paragraph I quoted: I neither blat all my data out onto the web indiscriminately nor cower beneath a virtual tinfoil hat in fear of something about me being used to sell me things. Instead, I do exactly what Mitchell describes in the final paragraph: I trade my data in return for things that I want. I’m careful about what I do post on Facebook, Twitter et al and the only stuff you’ll see there that I’ve posted is what I want you to see (and that’s why I can dish out advice on how not to make a fool of yourself on Twitter rather than wish I’d taken it).

In the case of social networks I let them have some data in return for a usable and useful method of communicating with my friends and broadcasting my opinions to the world. For advertising-funded websites, I let them track me in return for the content that they’re showing me.

At least, for most advertising-funded websites I do. But the deal has to be a good one. Give me what I want, and you can have my data in return. A lot of websites manage their side of that bargain very well. But a few don’t. I’m a bit of a news junkie; I spend a lot of time reading news websites and there is definitely a big difference between them in this respect.

The reason I’m reading (and quoting) David Mitchell’s articles is because the Guardian/Observer website is one of those which gets it right. It uses advertising intelligently, it’s visible enough without being intrusive and the site offers me enough inducements to register (and thus give them even more of my data) for it to be worthwhile. So, too, does the Daily/Sunday Telegraph website, which I read about as often as the Guardian’s.

The Independent, on the other hand, gets it horribly wrong. Quite apart from their absolutely risible attempt to comply with the new cookie law (yes, I think the law is stupid, but if you’re going to try to comply then at least use at least half a brain cell when developing the method), the site is riddled with some of the most annoying and intrusive adverts that I’ve seen. The result? Not only do I use the site a lot less than I do those of the Telegraph and Guardian, but when I do use it I routinely switch off Javascript in my browser. That not only blocks most of the ads, on which their revenue depends, but also disables most of their trackers as well. So they’re not getting ad revenue, and they’re not getting data.

What about other news websites? Well, The Times wants me not only to give them my data but also to pay them for the privilege of taking it from me. That’s so obviously a bad deal from my point of view that you have to wonder how they can ever hope to make it financially viable (there’s still no indication that Times online subs are compensating for the advertising revenue they lost by going behind the paywall, let alone the loss of influence). But then, News Corp is the company which bought Myspace for $580 million and sold it for $35 million, so Rupert Murdoch clearly doesn’t have a track record in successfully predicting Internet trends. The BBC news website doesn’t have advertising, and doesn’t have any trackers either – but that’s because I’m paying for the BBC website simply because I want to watch Channel 4 News and football on Sky, so they don’t need them. The Daily Mail website isn’t really a news outlet at all, it’s mostly celebrity gossip and ill-informed opinion (and the occasional totally fictitious “news” story) and the Sky News website isn’t as good as their TV channel. So they don’t get my data either (although, to be fair, the Mail’s operators are extremely good at getting the data of the shallow and gullible – who, of course, are an advertiser’s wet dream).

To paraphrase David Mitchell, this is the difference between a free market and a command economy. In a command economy, you get what’s made available to you and you have to pay whatever price is demanded for it. In a free market, you get to choose between competing suppliers and the price you pay is what it’s worth to you, not them. When we’re paying for content with our data, we can drive the price down by not being profligate. But, equally, by being prepared to pay, we can make it worthwhile to supply us.

A wet Wednesday in Hartlepool

An article in the Guardian Organ Grinder blog, titled “Local newspaper industry needs radical action now if it is to survive” laments the incipient passing of much of the country’s local newspaper industry. I don’t disagree with the article’s analysis of the issues, but it ends with a question that I think deserves an answer:

Bloggers will have their part to play, but the fundamental question remains: who will cover Hartlepool magistrates court on a wet Wednesday afternoon? It will not be a well-meaning amateur and has to be a professional journalist – the issue is how will it be paid for?

Hartlepool Magistrates Court
Hartlepool Magistrates Court

I think there’s a flawed assumption in the question. Namely, the belief that Hartlepool magistrates court needs to be covered on a wet Wednesday afternoon, because otherwise nobody will know what happened and what verdicts were handed down.

In the past, that would have been the case, simply because there was no easy way of disseminating that information other than via the press. But it isn’t the case any more. Now, court decisions don’t need to be restricted to dusty tomes in a legal library, they can be published on the Internet and made available for everyone to see. For example, here’s a case from Hartlepool magistrates court. That’s on the web here because it happens to concern a celebrity, but the basic information exists for every case.

There is no technical reason why every court in the land should not, as a matter of routine, publish all its decisions on the web. At the top, the Supreme Court already does. Most other higher courts, including the High Court of England and Wales, make their judgments available to the third-party website operated by the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII). But it’s still a piecemeal approach, and it doesn’t extend to lower courts such as the crown courts, county courts and magistrates courts – the places where the vast majority of cases are heard.

In the past, this didn’t matter so much, because the majority of courts are attended by the media and anything interesting does get reported. But we can’t rely on that in the future, as the Guardian article makes clear. That’s why it’s all the more important now to start taking steps towards a consistent and universal system of judgment publication.

I’ve blogged in the past about how the court system seems to go out of its way to avoid open publication of things like court listings. I still think it’s bordering on the scandalous that the court service has no in-house publication department which can maintain a web-based database. Give that the department already has a website which could carry the data, I don’t believe that the marginal cost of doing so would significantly exceed the amount paid by the Ministry of Justice to BAILII to publish judgments on the MoJ’s behalf. But the benefits to the public interest would be immense. Apart from nothing else, it would mean we’d no longer need to rely on journalists to tell us how much a pop star was fined by a magistrate for speeding on the M6. Instead, they could do more useful things, like attend local council meetings….

The media, the NotW and the trade in illegally sourced information

So, the News of the World will be no more after this weekend. I can’t say I’ll miss it, although I do feel a little sorry for the staff who will be losing their jobs while the senior executives who allowed the paper’s name to become mud keep theirs.

There is, though, and quite understandably, a lot of gloating going on at the moment. But is this really a victory? I’m not so sure.

In 2006, the Information Commissioner’s Office published a report titled “What Price Privacy Now?“, about the use of illegal methods by private investigators to obtain information for newspapers and other clients. Not all of this is phone hacking, of course (in fact, that’s a fairly small proportion of the total), but the methods used were no less illegal and no less intrusive. In particular, there’s one table which shows the “number of transactions positively identified” as involving illegal and/or intrusive methods and the number of journalists involved, listed by newspaper.  If you download the full document, linked above, it’s on page 9. But here’s the list in simple text format:

Publication Transactions Journalists
Daily Mail 952 58
Sunday People 802 50
Daily Mirror 681 45
Mail on Sunday 266 33
News of the World 182 19
Sunday Mirror 143 25
Best Magazine 134 20
Evening Standard 130 1
The Observer 103 4
Daily Sport 62 4
Sunday Times 52 7
The People 37 19
Daily Express 36 7
Weekend Magazine (Daily Mail) 30 4
Sunday Express 29 8
The Sun 24 4
Closer Magazine 22 5
Sunday Sport 15 1
Night and Day (Mail on Sunday) 9 2
Sunday Business News 8 1
Daily Record 7 2
Saturday (Express) 7 1
Sunday Mirror Magazine 6 1
Real Magazine 4 1
Woman’s Own 4 2
Daily Mirror Magazine 3 2
Mail in Ireland 3 1
Daily Star 2 4
Marie Claire 2 1
Personal Magazine 1 1
Sunday World 1 1

Yes, the data is now nearly five years old, so it doesn’t include the period covered by the NotW scandal. And it’s quite possible that some of the publications at the top of the list have cleared up their act in the meantime. But that’s not what the media themselves are saying.

This may be the end of the road for the News of the World. But it’s not the end of the road for the story. There will be plenty more twists and turns before it’s all over.