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Selling your identity

10 Nov 2015

This is my editorial for the Winter 2015 issue of HardCopy magazine:

One place that's not interested in your personal identity (by WiNG)

One place that’s not interested in your personal identity (photo by WiNG)

There are some things we’re happy to pay for, and some things we’re not, and in the digital world, there’s little rhyme or reason between the two. I am quite happy to pay the BBC nearly £150 a year for the privilege of watching a handful of TV channels without being interrupted by inane advertising, and up until just a few years ago, there were enough people prepared to pay for mobile phone ringtones to create a billion dollar industry. And yet we still seem unwilling to pay anyone for accessing their website, preferring instead to enter into an ambiguous and often downright dangerous relationship with a largely unknown collection of marketing companies.

Walk into a cinema, buy a ticket with cash, and you can watch a film without the cinema having any idea who you are. As long as you’ve got a valid ticket, they’re happy. Even if you pay by credit card, the cinema would have to take deliberate and indeed illegal steps to intercept the data transferred between you and the credit card company. Buy a ticket through the same cinema’s website, though, and the chances are that you will be asked, at the very least, for your email address, so providing them with a unique key that can be linked to any other personal data held by any other website that has your email address.

Exactly how little we think about such matters has been highlighted by the many data hacks that have occurred recently, the most recent at the time of writing being the exposure of more than 30 million people signed up to the adultery website Ashley Madison, most of whom obviously felt quite safe entering their email addresses and, in some cases, real names.

Yes, creating and maintaining a website costs money, and that needs to be recouped. The current model, adopted by all but a few notable exceptions, is to sell on personal data, either directly or indirectly by selling advertising opportunities. Quite why a cinema chain needs to do this is another matter, as it is presumably already making money from selling the tickets themselves, but the model has proved so successful, and we so happy to accept it, that no-one seems interested in considering any other.

Of course there are other business models that could be adopted, and were even considered way back when the Web was young. Micro-payments, for example, charged every time you view a page, were considered and even made it to a W3C Working Draft in 1999, but abandoned because the infrastructure couldn’t handle it. However in these days of megabit data rates and bitcoin technologies, surely it’s time to revisit such alternatives.

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