Ethan Zuckerman called it “the original sin of the web” — using customer data to target advertising. Writing a feature for The Atlantic, the technologist described how advertising became the default business model on the internet, “because it was the easiest model for a web start-up to implement, and the easiest to market to investors.”
And just a few weeks before we launched Adapt, this digital advertisement model — increasingly known as the ‘surveillance model’ of capitalism — led to the 2018 Facebook & Cambridge Analytica fiasco: 87 million users had their data mined without their knowledge or consent. Should we be resigned to living in a fallen world? We think not.
Today, businesses collect more customer data than ever before. Yet few people have any idea about the scale of data mining and processing that lies behind digital advertising. In turn, few companies have tapped the full potential of data — and it would require securing the trust and consent of customers and policy makers to use data in innovative ways to develop new products and services. Nor have most companies responded to the increasing demand for data from public policy makers — for example to help realise the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Public concern about the exploitation of data is growing, and consumer trust in companies that collect and use data is declining fast. Many argue that policy makers should put an end to the ‘surveillance’ business model of the internet, preventing companies from collecting and utilising customer data. Regulators are circling the problem with measures such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, requiring greater levels of customer consent (which most companies are treating as another exercise in minimal compliance).
But what alternatives are there? Some commentators are calling for the provision of paid services that do not require data collection. Others make the case for a fundamental shift that would mean customers own their data and lease it for commercial use. But it is still not clear that there is a consumer market for online paid services — or a realistic route to the more radical solutions.
In short, who owns, controls, and benefits from data has become one of the most important policy issues of our time. Is there a path between Scylla (ending data collection as we know it) and Charybdis (minimal compliance to the law and further deterioration of trust in private companies)? At Adapt, we think there is.
We help companies rethink their relationship with data, building partnerships that benefit everyone. We believe that companies should see their customers as partners — rather than passive suppliers of data — in a relationship where the company is transparent about what data is being collected, what it does with that data, and how both the company and user will benefit. By working with Adapt, companies come to see their customers as partners in a mutually beneficial enterprise — setting out with a mutual aim to empower both sides in the bargain. And by establishing a responsible approach to data collection and management, companies can then create value by uncovering unique insights about their customers that enable them to develop new products and services that benefit customer and company alike.
The final aspect of Adapt’s work is to show companies how they can help drive social change by sharing their data with policy makers — in an appropriate manner — enabling the development of policies that maximize social impact or help meet development goals.
In summary, we launched Adapt to help companies rethink their relationship with data — to build trust, create value and drive social change.
Is there a cure for the internet’s “original sin”? We are not seeking a route back to the internet’s Garden of Eden. But we do believe there are pragmatic and incremental changes that shift the relationship between company and customer, empowering the customer without damaging the ability of companies to collect and use data. Adapt’s approach helps companies grow sustainably based on a trusting relationship with their customers. We believe that the companies of the future will still collect data, but it will not simply benefit the company — the customer and the wider community will benefit too.