April 4th, 2018

How a data-rating agency for apps could build confidence and competition

As syndicated with the Daily Telegraph

Do you know how much salt you should eat for lunch? Neither do I, but thankfully, the introduction of food standards and clearer information on labels means that many consumers can easily judge a food’s salt content without requiring a chemistry degree. Food labelling has not been without it’s critics, but plenty of evidence now suggests that calorie counts and colours showing the concentration of fats, sugars and carbohydrates in a product has had a positive effect on both consumer choice and just as importantly their trust in food products. Without them very few of us would have a clue about what we’re putting in our body.

Simple labelling is important for the food industry because over the last century how our food is grown and made has become far more complex, which naturally raises a lot of trust issues for consumers that such labels have helped tackle.

The users of big consumer tech platforms are facing a similar problem today, as once straightforward services have become exponentially more complex. While big tech platforms have benefitted over the past decade from a perfect storm of more time spent online, a greater demand for outcome-driven advertising and powerful new software tools such as neural nets, they have radically changed their industries in the process.

There is nothing wrong with such innovation, but it has turned what was once relatively comprehensible industries like advertising, and some pretty well understood technologies, your telephone, camera and game boy, into incredibly complicated machines.

For some the immediate reaction to such complexity, especially when cases of abuse such as the seeming transgressions of Cambridge Analytica and others appear, is to take control of these systems. It has become almost a cliche to claim that ‘data is the new oil’, but the analogy is useful if you believe we should look to nationalise them both.

However most recent surveys suggest that in reality people don’t mind sharing some data, as the relatively poor performance of the #DeleteFacebook movement last week suggests. What does concern people is not the potential trade off between free services and advertising, but rather a lack of clarity about what data they are actually trading.

And users can hardly be blamed. Twitter’s user agreement runs into 11,000 words, ( or almost 400 of your old-money tweets ) and there’s been over 40 iOS updates each with T&Cs stretching into 10’000s of words. When I downloaded all the data Google held on me, it ran to over 5GB, or 2.5 million word documents. T&Cs have got so long that there is even an automated bot that’s been developed to help make sense of them for you.

Even if you did read the T&Cs for one service and decide not to download that app, it’s increasingly unclear where else it might be operating. In a recent survey of Android phones for instance, Facebook’s Advertising & Tracking service was present in over a third of apps used, its much more than just Facebook Messenger and Instagram.

Such opacity and complexity naturally breeds mistrust, and bigtech hasn’t been entirely tone-deaf. There have been efforts by some of the larger tech companies to simplify the language they use. Apple does a good job of forcing apps to tell you in plain language if they are getting access to your microphone or camera, and Google and Facebook both offer multiple ways to see what data they store. However the relationship between the user and these big platforms is now becoming too important to let each platform work it out for themselves.

Instead the Government and regulators could be working with these platforms to develop a scale to show how much data these services are capturing and sharing when you use them. A+ services might not use any identifiable data at all, while C- might get your location and search history, but in return deliver some great restaurant recommendations when you’re in a new town.

A simple rating system would also open up some more competition for services. Sure you can delete Google Maps out of concerns for your privacy, but how do you know if any of the other services are any better? Without a shared language it is hard to make comparisons, but by enforcing a common rating system users would be able to consciously make trade-offs between the services they want and data they are willing to share. The rise of healthy choices in supermarkets, such as gluten free or low calorie meals was certainly helped by unified wording on products. If enough users decide that they are only happy using low-data services, 'B' or above, then new companies may be able to crack into that market, and we will soon be bored of the clique at work that rave about having gone ‘A+’ only online.

A rating service may seem simplistic, but from food ingredients to energy efficiency and car safety they have empowered consumers by giving them a clear choice across complex products and increased consumer confidence in the process. As our online activity becomes an even bigger part of our lives, rebuilding that consumer confidence in technology services is urgently needed.