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Berners-Lee: Demand your data from Internet companies

Would giving users access to the data companies collect on them improve digital privacy?

By Cameron Scott
April 19, 2012 08:53 PM ET

IDG News Service - Tim Berners-Lee has said that the problem with companies like Facebook and Google is not that they collect vast troves of data about their users, but that they don't share with them what they learn from it.

Berners-Lee, who is often described as the inventor of the World Wide Web, was speaking out against the U.K.'s proposal to allow government intelligence to monitor digital communications. Berners-Lee is a U.K. native.

He acknowledged that users reveal deeply personal information about themselves through their use of the Web.

"You get to know every detail, you get to know, in a way, more intimate details about their life than any person that they talk to, because often people will confide in the Internet as they find their way through medical websites ... or as an adolescent finds their way through a website about homosexuality, wondering what they are and whether they should talk to people about it," he said.

But rather than pushing companies to stop collecting the information, Berners-Lee suggested technology companies should show more restraint in how they use the information and should share it with the users themselves.

"We're moving towards a world in which people agree not to use information for particular purposes. It's not whether you can get my information, it's when you've got it, what you promise not to do with it," he said.

In a scenario that some privacy experts saw as naive, the technology pioneer said an insurance company, for instance, could agree not to use personal details gleaned from Facebook to set the most profitable premium for a would-be customer, even if one of its agents was connected to the prospective customer on the social network.

The problem, according to Berners-Lee, is that "social networking silos" like Facebook and Google "have the data and I don't. "One side of this that I think gets insufficient airing is the value to me of that data," Berners-Lee said.

Berners-Lee said location data from his mobile phones could help him track his exercise habits, for example.

It's hard to say if reams of unstructured data would help individuals less tech-savvy than Berners-Lee, however. Justin Brookman, director of the Project on Consumer Privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, was skeptical. But Ryan Calo, with the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University, said he thought the data could be quite helpful to individuals.

The privacy experts agreed that releasing the data would educate consumers on the issue of Internet privacy, which can seem abstract.

"It's good for companies to make their information available to people. But from my point of view it's just so people have an awareness of what sort of information companies have about them, and collect, and track and keep," Brookman said.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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