I'm working with a client to develop a set of guidelines on a particular topic at the moment. The detail doesn't matter, but the approach does. The challenge set was: how to create guidelines that don't strangle invention and creativity, in an area where the cost of failure is fairly high.
Not easy. I thought about it again as I read about the latest wave of data privacy stories in the British press: from the NSA wiretapping foreign leaders and intercepting Google data centre information, to Tesco trialling face-detection software at petrol station tills to serve targeted advertising, to the new shock-doc about privacy policies.
To most people, paying no more attention than they need to (like all of us), this is all part of one rather sinister, rather seedy story. It goes: everything you do online, you're being spied on. You have no privacy, because big government and big business can do what they want and know everything about you. And you didn't know.
That's just a step away from 'something must be done', and from a legislative crackdown that will do nothing about genuine privacy intrusions but cripple easy targets like online advertising.
If that happened, today, you'd have to admit the advertising industry deserved it. We haven't been vocal in our defence of consumer privacy, haven't been exacting in how we use data, and haven't been creative enough at finding uses for data that are genuinely valuable. Better targeted advertising is not the answer there, because the most targeted advertising is also, at the moment, the worst. So we're just offering intrusive advertising that you can resent in a way that's uniquely tailored to you.
We need to set ourselves some guidelines as an industry that start with creativity and invention as ambitions. To start investing in creative uses of data, and in commitments to the responsible use of the data we collect. But the first move needs to be better data-driven creative work - new services powered by the new information we're asking people for. So that we can legitimately, non-furtively ask people to share data, and make it obvious why they should.
In short: we shouldn't be showing people why data collection is harmless. That's an excuse, not a vindication. We should be showing them what data makes possible. We should be earning data, not leeching it. Which means we'll all have to work a lot harder than retargeted ads and the occasional coupon.
# Alex Steer (05/11/2013)