Berners-Lee: Demand your data from Internet companies

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

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 naïve, 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.

Calo thought seeing the data companies have collected on them would clarify privacy questions for many users.

Compared to "reading generalities about the information that a company might have about you, which is what privacy policies are, being able to access the information that the company does have is much better," he said.

In order for users to draw the kind of useful personal insights Berners-Lee pointed to, data from one source would have to be compatible with data from another. As an advocate of the "open Web," Berners-Lee often argues for data formats to be standardized.

Standardizing data formats would also make it easier for users to opt to leave a service whose privacy practices they don't like, Calo said. That could spur "privacy competition," in which Web services companies would compete for users based on the quality of their privacy policies. The result could be more consumer privacy.

Calo said, by not addressing consumer concerns about privacy, Berners-Lee was "missing a selling point of his idea" of an open Web.

Cameron Scott covers search, web services and privacy for The IDG News Service. Follow Cameron on Twitter at CScott_IDG.

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