As advertisers and end-users alike react to the data breach that leaves people’s information open to exploitation, it’s time for Media Behemoths to step up.

For well over a decade I have been warning the Ad:Tech industry that this gross assumption of implicit control over data was going to have dire consequences. Implied use of services – that are now essential – cannot be reason enough to assume complete control over a user’s rights to privacy. In the real world, if you want access to my data you must reward me for that data. That’s the premise of exchange that exists in every loyalty program. This trend of implied use, let alone lack of security, has now reached fever pitch with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but is merely the face of a systematic erosion of utilising technology against humanity for far too long and now advertisers are equally shouting ‘enough is enough’.

I’ve lost counts of people stating ‘I have nothing to hide’ when the issue of privacy and the right to anonymity has been discussed over the years. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg stated years ago his view was that privacy was a thing of the past, and yet it was this naivety that first saw a reaction to Facebook’s Beacon program and ultimately has fuelled the situation we face right now. Ironically, over the last couple of weeks we’ve all started to see dear friends and colleagues – even people who work in Media – whom we are connected to on Facebook state they were now closing their account. To what degree this reaction will now happen is anyone’s guess, but is this the retaliative backlash for enforcing terms that are now proven to be unacceptable? Surely there is another way to move forwards rather than disappearing off the [social] grid.

When I was invited to present to EU Ministers of Media and Culture on the topic of Privacy in 2011, my key takeaway was that having one set of rules for online media and another for offline were out of step and heading to a reaction. I likened the shift as that of moving from ‘ID Theft’ to ‘ID Rape’ as this trend of getting ever more personal details from users and using it to target them was resulting in people feeling violated. Even then, it was hinted that policy would take at least four years to implement and as we finally move towards the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) due to come into force in May this year, that has proven accurate. Yet in my mind, breaking apart being able to use technology for essential services from consent to marketable information, is only one step in the right direction and not the solution of an exponentially developing industry around data-harvesting.

Who would have considered even a couple of years ago we were about to move from Social Media to GenoMedia, where insanely personal data resulting from the growing rise of home DNA kits and shared services would be upon us? It may sound like some future insanity from a ‘Black Mirror’ episode, but yes, being able to target against tastes and likes is already a thing. Consider Vinome, in San Francisco, as just one example where wine is now selected and delivered to you based upon your DNA – knowing you’ll like a varietal, vineyard, vintage before you’ve even heard of either… It’s a radical turning point on the trend we have witnessed for two decades as we’ve rushed to strain even more personal data from consumers so that we may sell more targeted products to them.

This subtle erosion has taken many shapes over the years and there are many examples. Consider travelling across London. Yes, Oyster Cards may have assisted digital transformation, sped up your commute and ultimately saved TFL money. Yet it could equally be argued that my choiceof anonymity was finally taken away that moment in July 2014 when buses no longer would accept cash, subtly heralding a slide towards personal registration and tracking, i.e. harvesting data. The same can be said could be said of the CCTV camera increase or telephone recording ‘for training purposes’ over the years. Whatever arguments you can make for the improvement of services, the fact remains it’s an example of implied use of a necessary service that comes at a gross assumption of data collection and usage that has become an accepted norm in the digital age – and then simply trusting/hoping your data will somehow be protected. In a world that is becoming increasingly more cash-less, the shift to intermediaries from finance to insurance to media services has driven this ‘big data’ push to better target consumers simply via their services. Does GDPR go anywhere near addressing the fundamental implicit use of any given service? Honestly, it barely touches the sides of the real debate.

Time and time again we have seen huge consumer backlash to digital technology trying to enforce change for change sake without clear consideration of the human factor – and in the admirable desire to progress, we have crossed lines. We have seen it in 2003 when Wal-Mart’s US Stores tried to install smart shelves using RFID wireless transmitters and the same in Germany when Metro Group trialled the same at their Extra Future Store near Duisburg – consumers passionately revolted. We have seen this in 2008 when BT, Talk Talk and Virgin Media decided to use Deep Packet Inspection to scan for keywords to be used for advertising purposes provided by Phorm – which was later felt to be wire-tapping and even saw the European Commission challenging the UK government over consumer privacy. We have seen this in the rise of pop-up and cookie blockers, that have ultimately been built into browsers. And more recently when Samsung and Apple on televisions and mobiles were exposed for collecting data without being clear on what was being collated nor giving consumers options to opt-out. Just a myriad of ad:tech missteps.

Yet there is hope, and it comes in the form of a revolution. Not in deleting your Facebook account or ‘opting out’ of society’s digital services, but in using a new digital technology to tackle an old digital problem. I am talking BlockChain.

Towards Decentralisation

Assuming Blockchain is purely about digital currency is rather like assuming the Internet was just for military networks. It’s never what the first iteration is, but the vision of what it can become… At the heart of BlockChain is a codification of explicit, not impliedconsent. The concept of BlockChain was a reaction to the financial crisis of 2008 against those in charge in the form of ‘social responsibility versus financial gain’. It is a vision to completely decentralise the middle-man, whether it is a bank, a business… or even a government. It places true power back into the hands of the individual – the common man (or woman). It is akin to the original concept of the House of Commons having a voice against a potential tyrant to keep them in check. Except this time, it is not a select group of individuals that represent us, it’s every single one of us – individually and collectively!

The decentralised BlockChain is about us as individuals taking control of the things that matter to us – whether finance or data or views – and controlling who, how, where and when this may be used. It also means those wishing to engage us can be made to justify why. It builds in agreements between parties directly without needing any intermediary. Information about me remains with me and is securely linked to me and me alone, i.e. my block. I choose in what manner I engage and on what terms. Those in mutual agreement with me – the ones in my chain – make suggestions that all of us must agree together in order for ‘policy’ to change. Therefore, it is contractual, transactional, versionable and modifiable – and quite secure.

Regardless of whether that is the value of something we can attribute money to, as we’ve seen transactionally in finance and banking, certainly new interfacing forms of engagement with business will emerge – such as shared and agreed business terms – whether I’m a supplier, employee or potential customer. How my health recordsor even my DNAmay be stored and utilised will be governed in this manner. My views on all manner of topics including societal governance could also be securely shared for mutual benefit in this way. If we as a collective decide something is so, we agree to these shared terms in form of a ledger, and then push for them to be implemented. In essence it is a revolutionary concept that has far reaching consequences that can only be surmised at this stage.

BlockChain and Media

But we must get back to the matter at hand: Media – the collation of data and use in targeting products and services. If I may go into a shop and buy something, I may do so without the need to be tracked if I so wish. If I choose to engage further with the company selling me something they must reward me for my data sharing. This is presented in a loyalty program, where I could receive a value, such as half-penny in every pound spent. It’s a transactional reward for my compliance. No business model exists that categorically states that coming in to the store must equate to personally identifiable information being handed over to simply use their services: it would be considered a breach of human rights (to privacy). Even when data is used within a loyalty program, it can only be used for specific purposes. It is within this concept that Facebook may indeed have crossed a line.

When a company’s terms and conditions are longer than the US constitution, it cannot be acceptable to state ‘oh well, you didn’t read our terms’. Nor is it sufficient to state, use of an online service equates to handing over personally identifiable data to ‘sustain a business model based on targeted advertising’ which has already been shown to be controversial in certain circumstances. Furthermore, not ensuring that such personal data is allowed to be scraped, farmed, sold and utilised by a third-party is indeed a breach of trust and a step-too-far.

I am not anti-advertising. In fact, I have spent most of my career promoting the need for better targeted ads that connect a consumer with the right products, at the right time in a manner that assists and not exploits. It is my belief that consumers ideally want to hear about offers of things they are interested in and would rather not see things of no value to them. It is my utter frustration that, sadly, most technology that exists today is not adequate to address the real needs of brands and content providers wishing to deliver value to their consumers – failing to meet basic expectations of such end-users. It is not about a lack of data in most cases, but the collation and utilisation of such data, often held in silos of media behemoths who feel ‘they’ should have ultimate control and continually challenge the notion of ‘personal and private’. The only real solution that is going to survive in the long term is based in pure transparency: Open source from data gatherers in one hand; consumer agreed regulation in the other.

If BlockChain secures my data at source, it means rather than the global digital intermediaries assuming implicit control of my data, they must first break apart using their service from data collation the way it works in traditional bricks-and-mortar stores. I take back control of all my data, and if you want to have access to it, you must first agree to my terms, whether that be how it is used, how it is stored, or what transactional reward I am given for my data – equally for what interests and doesn’t interest ‘me’. I get to set the terms of engagement and who I wish to be part of my chain, including the service providers and even brands that are of interest to me. I don’t agree to their terms, they must agree to mine – and this must be ratified by over half of my approval network. Furthermore, any alteration is public and documented – you cannot simply remove a line item later like you can in a database.

There are many solutions being discussed right now, to reconstruct the way digital ad revenue is distributed and allocated right along the value chain. It could even be used for facilitating micro-transactions for every interaction, helping to know the true origins of such an interaction would help bypass bots and reduce ad fraud – allowing clients to speak direct to consumers and pay them in form of cash or coupon, rather than paying any intermediary like Google or Facebook for targeting insights. The implications for this are huge, radical and transformative – completely new advertising methods not considered to date – even if the full implications can only be glimpsed in the distance right now. But to me, this is the way we can look to put the ‘me’ back into ‘media’.

Perhaps, it’s even beyond advertising. If we look at the real transactional benefit of BlockChain, the removal of the middleman makes micro-transactions economically sustainable. Rather than needing to agree to pay several pounds for ongoing full monthly subscriptions, the pay-per-article proposition for a couple of pennies becomes much more palatable to both publisher and consumer in this new environment. We are already seeing a form of this on digital music and TV episode transactions for downloadable content – but we could go beyond this to allow DRM and new global rights protections to be explicitly maintained and let me watch my streaming content anywhere in the world. BlockChain will enable even stronger pricing and convenience for consumers – encouraging huge growth in micro-transactions globally that translate to huge revenue at scale.

For too long the Googles, Facebooks and Amazons of the world have treated us as a commodity to be exploited, merely for the honour of using them. They have made billions from brands and advertising and have been rewarded for my use of their services by becoming the de-facto traders of my data. BlockChain is the solution. Actually, it’s the revolution, that we as end-users and consumers have long been waiting for. It’s about time there was a trusted revenue transaction with the people whose data was used in the targeting. It has the potential to deliver upon explicit terms of engagement on one side and a fair-trade loyalty program on the other. Big Data is finally becoming ‘My Data’ and it has real value. It’s both control and reward for the end consumer –finally treating us as people and not commoditised products.

Do not underestimate BlockChain. It is about to usurp every business model – and industry assumption – we have come to accept as the norm over the last couple of decades. Change is coming and it’s in your favour fellow human. So, get ready to burn your bras… and enjoy the sound of ker-ching! in your pocket.

“Vive la (BlockChain) Révolution!”