I Agree!

By Shobhika Puri | Last Updated: Aug 10, 2015, 14:21 PM IST

In spite of being an ardent admirer of companies like Google, I have critiqued Google’s privacy policy and terms of service in the past. There have been many like me who have raised concerns about the power such companies hold over us with our data in their hands; yet, these companies continue to flourish and earn goodwill. This got me into thinking, if they were using our data for their business needs without our knowledge, they couldn’t have possibly come clean so far? They must be doing something right that people continue to trust them with even more data, thereby increasing their power further.

That we are very dependent on technology these days, is a foregone conclusion. Companies and applications like Google, Skype, WhatsApp, Face Time, Drop Box etc have become an integral and indispensable part of our lives and no matter what their terms of service are, many of us will agree, for the lack of any alternatives. However, the moot question is, how are these companies surviving the stringent data protection and privacy laws of developed nations like the US? They must be doing something right.

Content aggregation has existed for decades now in the form of surveys. Even companies like Facebook and Google aggregate content and use it for analysing user behaviour and preferences. However, the point of contention here is that the surveyors take explicit consent of the users while the latter in spite of getting agreement on their terms of service, do not necessarily have the consent of the users for using their data.

The Internet is a huge repository of data. Companies like Facebook are able to get ‘real-time’ ‘personal’ data for ‘free’ ‘24X7’! Collecting such huge data otherwise would be virtually impossible. Now that such data is available for almost free and if it is not put to good use, it would be a sheer wastage of resources. Majority of the users have a very negative opinion about such data analysis and have come to believe that mostly it is misused for profit motives. Monetary considerations are a fact of life and any company will have to earn profit to be able to continue to be in business. Hence, using data for profit motives may not necessarily be wrong, provided the data is not put to uses detrimental to the interests of the users themselves. Recently, I have come around to realise the many uses that such data analysis can be put to. This article throws light on a few.

Analysis of user data helps companies tell their advertisers to give targeted ads to their users. For example, if you are fond of football and you keep getting ads about cooking that doesn’t really interest you, would you not get bugged? Such analysis also helps software and application developers create tools of interest to you. It also helps bring like-minded people together by forming groups, which usually get flashed on your screen as recommendations. Psychologists have also started analysing behavioural patterns. Such studies have started bringing out amazing results about areas like society, relationships, personality traits etc. Even something as basic as search engine keywords, help bring out amazing patterns. Above all, such applications are an amazing platform for generating ideas and getting instant feedback – all this and more at the users’ convenience, real-time and for free! Would all this have been possible without such companies? Are not the uses that such data is put to far more appealing than the possible misuse? If we let the latter override the former, would it not tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Hopefully, by now most readers would be convinced that the data collection and analysis thereof is good; however, the misuse too is a harsh reality. Almost all companies and applications on the Internet have a terms of service agreement that a user has to agree to before using its services. However, the language and length of such agreements are so complex and long, that most users do not bother to read before consenting. Even if there are some who take the pains and understand the contentious issues, they do not have any safer alternatives. Either they do not use such applications or services, which would basically rule out almost all of the services online, or they agree grudgingly. If companies make some amends here, they can earn a lot of goodwill. All they have to do is make their terms of service simple to understand and of a readable length. They can explain the use to which the user data shall be put to and what benefits would accrue to the users as a result. They can also explain what preventive measures the company has put in place for any inadvertent misuse of the user data, and the rights of the user for redressal if such a mishap occurs. Such terms can be displayed at prominent places for the users to see, and there can be repeated reminders for the same. Companies like Google and LinkedIn have done so in the past and have been highly appreciated for the same. Such small steps can generate a lot of goodwill for the companies and enable them to collect even more data.

On reading the terms of service agreement which a user can understand, s/he can take an informed decision and choose one of the two options – either share only that data which s/he does not mind making public, or share data freely with the confidence that the company in question is trustworthy. The option of not using the service has not been considered as an alternative because given the nature of our lives today, not using technology is not feasible.

Technology and users cannot live without each other. So, the best way forward is for the companies to make small changes in their data policies and the latter shall throng to them willingly. As a result, the companies shall get more data and can do better analysis, thereby giving them an edge over their competition. It is this interdependence that will define the new world we live in. Thus, it is time for the technology companies to consider users’ terms of service and hit the button that says, ‘I Agree’!

(Shobhika Puri is a freelance writer)