Air — Enabling the Democratisation of the Internet.

Fiona Seymour for Sphre.

The internet is free but only up to a point. In the 27 years that have elapsed since its inception, the original vision of Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web has been subverted by business which provides ‘free’ services, but only in exchange for personal data. Surely that is a contradiction in terms? The distinction between the absence of any exchange of money and ‘free’ is highly important in this context considering how our personal data is being used; not to mention the huge profit that is derived from it while none is shared with the source. Berners-Lee commented recently that, ‘As our data is … held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data and chose when and with whom to share it. What’s more, we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share — especially with third parties — the T&Cs are all or nothing. (1) And so what do we get in return, aside from the free use of services such as Google and Facebook? Well often it’s the unwanted targeting by ad companies of content that is supposedly geared to our personal preferences which are derived from tracking our internet usage. More worryingly, Berners-Lee points out, ‘Through collaboration with — or coercion of — companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy.’ (1)

And whilst we are discussing the semantics of the word ‘free’, what do you consider your personal data derived from your identity to be worth? It may seem rather too abstract a construct to warrant a monetary value, yet a great deal of money is being garnered from it — not that you’d notice since you aren’t being remunerated for its use. But what to do? We still want to use these free services and while we are at present powerless to avoid our data being exploited, an ever-increasing number of internet users have resorted to active avoidance of the annoying corollary of this — aggressive advertising — via the installation of adblockers. Indeed, adblockers’ stars are in their ascendancy; by the end of 2016, 70 million Americans were reported to be using adblockers and this figure is continually rising.

This is a veritable thorn in the side to advertising companies who pay fortunes to attention industry giants such as Google and Facebook to get their campaigns out there in the virtual world. The market is gargantuan. Indeed, US digital ad revenue is expected to achieve profits of $100 billion by 2021, with the highest growth sector predicted in digital video advertising via mobile devices. (2) But it isn’t just adblocker that are causing advertisers problems; they face increasing hostility from internet users who are sick of being targeted with dull and irrelevant content. Some even adopt a kind of counterculture behaviour whereby they seek to protect their personal data by using freedom respecting software. Most just attempt to actively avoid advertising wherever possible — hence the huge rise in subscriptions to ad-free TV services such as Amazon Prime and Netflix.

British consumers are amongst the most critical of the advertising barrage gleaned from their personal data collection. Recent results from an Adobe study found that 27% of Brits believed that ‘digital ads have ‘got worse’ in the past three years. They are bored with the lack of precision in targeting ads to their specific tastes and as a result, 54% viewed the content as ‘ineffective’. This is bad news for ad agencies whose ROIs are not looking quite so rosy based on these kind of statistics. Adobe’s marketing manager, Julia Soffa stated that ‘Consumers want dynamic creative. A relevant piece of content that, with the right data, can deliver something personal to a particular audience.’ Indeed, Amy Kean, head of futures at Havas Media concurred with this sentiment in a recent Guardian article stating ‘’Already, 75% of consumers expect and want a retail experience to be personalised…” (3) And therein lies the rub: consumers want a more relevant advertising experience; but the kind of data that is being unwittingly gathered on their behalf does not necessarily produce the kind of targeted advertising that they’d prefer. So, what’s the solution?

Let’s consider a scenario in which the friction that occurs between advertiser and consumer has evaporated, and in its place, is a willing, docile consumer who wants to watch their targeted advert. After all, it has been tailor-made to match their preferences so what’s not to love. Furthermore, the advertiser gets to market directly to an attentive customer who will be bothered to look at their advert, and won’t install an ad-blocker. So how could this scenario become commonplace in a world where currently the consumer is sick to death of adverts appearing every time they open a browser and actively disengages from the advertiser’s message? How could both consumer and advertiser co-exist happily? It’s simple really. Pay them to watch the advert and they’ll happily oblige. And why not?

The Air consumer app. from Sphre ( offers a solution whereby consumers could receive micro-payments for their active participation in the advertising process in XID. Not only would this be a more equitable way for companies to use consumer data (as the consumer would be rewarded) but it would encourage engagement in the digital economy by whole generation of internet users.

The inequity of companies exploiting digital identity, ostensibly in exchange for ‘free’ service needs to be redressed and the Air consumer app, which would enable consumers to register their identity and use it in online transactions is an attempt to do just this. Data gathered on user preferences would be then be collated to enable targeted advertising to be delivered directly to them. In return for viewing their targeted content, they would receive a micro-payment.

Not only is this a simple solution to an increasingly frustrated customer base, it represents a move towards a democratisation of the internet which will gather force with each generation. As consumers become more aware of the ways in which their data is being exploited they will become increasingly resistant to marketing being thrust upon them and will develop ever more devious way to avoid being advertised to. Air will change this paradigm for the better.