Let’s fast forward to 2020. A combination of class action lawsuits and tough regulation across the globe following the Cambridge Analytica scandal has led to the break-up or collapse of the digital behemoths. The remaining digital brands are constrained by stringent regional regulations that place social good and consumer protection on an equal footing with creating shareholder value.
Consumers are now firmly in control of their personal data and in shaping the data economy. The regulatory push was rushed and painful and made a few investors extremely unhappy, but collectively we’re now in a much better place. Here’s why:
1. Consumer champions rule
Consumer advocacy is becoming big business with B-Corporation mentality replacing the discredited Silicon Valley “today’s creepy is tomorrow’s necessity” startup culture. That doesn’t mean we can’t be commercial. For a fee, professionally trained and highly regulated personal data brokers — next gen Independent Financial Advisors — monetize consumers’ personal data sets, constantly tweaking the value exchange in the customer’s favor in line with the new data-flavored Hippocratic oath they swore upon graduation. The tiered services they offer include curating and protecting consumers’ digital personas — the mass of personal data that grows with every online click. Personal data security is a huge part of their offering and includes everything from smart “sniffer” services that check for apps trying to steal and harvest personal data, to digital shields that keep consumers’ social media echo chambers free from third-party propaganda. At its most basic, this service enables customers to choose and tweak the algorithms that underpin their social and news services to edit out some of the egregious extremes of what we saw in 2017-18. At the ultra-premium end, consumers can also request that personal data brokers protect them from themselves; for example, by barring gamblers from visiting or being targeted by betting sites or shopaholics from shopping or being targeted by brands.
2. Users can self-hack to self-improve
GDPR2 and its U.S. equivalent are requiring companies across all sectors to open their APIs to regulated, ethical startups that are vying to produce the best services to help consumers “mine” their personal data sets. Fuelled by data portability and the latest data science tools, self-hacking and self-improvement across all areas is a massive socio-cultural trend, with consumers able to merge personal data from their banks, online shopping, performance appraisals, and health-care providers to gain in-depth holistic insights into their behavior and inclinations, complete with individualized advice on how to improve. There is a growing move among A List celebs to share these insights with certified B-Corp brands that design personalized socially and environmentally sustainable services to help them manage their jet-set lives better — or, for Gwyneth Paltrow types, become even better versions of themselves.
3. Data decentralization empowers communities
Nowhere is the power shift from platform businesses like Google and Facebook to consumers more evident than at community level. Savvy, motivated consumer groups are pooling their data sets and behaving more like suppliers, demanding to trade with businesses on commercial terms to secure the correct market value for handing over their personal data in exchange for products and services. Local parent groups are getting together to offer anonymized data about their shopping habits to Walmart or Walgreens in return for discounts at their local store. Meanwhile in the UK, inmates at several low-level security prisons recently offered to pool data about their learning styles and rehabilitation in return for improved visitation rights.
4. Data activism — ‘datavism’ — catches on
While the digital imperialism of the GAFA platforms is long gone, anger remains over the casual exploitation of consumers’ personal data. Skeptical of governments’ abilities to protect them, vigilante consumer groups in the U.S., UK, and France are starting to exact revenge on data-abusing brands by grouping together to file multiple requests for their data. Known as “datavism,” this practice is creating such a volume of requests that politicians fear the aggressive timescale required to fulfil them could place companies of all sizes, and even government departments, under enormous resource pressure, potentially leading to their collapse.
5. Grandiose ad claims get busted
Not only has ad retargeting finally fallen foul of data privacy legislation, now that consumers own their personal data and can check whether a cell phone contract or loan deal suits their individual real-time usage, it’s the end of the line for grandiose ad claims like “The World’s Favorite Airline.” Several famous brands have fired even more famous ad agencies for failing to adapt, and a wave of conferences and articles are springing up, devoted to “Transparent Advertising” and “Life after Retargeting.” Personalized price recommendation services based on consumers’ actual data usage are the norm, sparking a growing trend towards commoditization and massive price-cutting wars.
In short, 2020 is a heady mix of decentralization, empowerment, and taking back control. More generally, consumers the world over finally understand the value they intrinsically hold in a data-powered economy. Some are proclaiming a new form of capitalism. Less portentously, consumers no longer feel like pawns in the crazy ego-driven socio-political puppetry of 2018.
This article is fictional and the result of a great deal of optimism as well as mild cynicism about the sectors covered here :)
John Oswald is Global Principal at Futurice, an international innovation and delivery agency headquartered in Helsinki that helps businesses become future-capable.