The platform economy refers to the delivery of goods and services through digital platforms. Part of this platform economy involves the gathering of online behavioural data by free services such as social media. This could include data on your interests in specific types of music, where you are based, or your sexual and political preferences. These would be based on your search history, likes, purchases, use of hashtags, and the location tag of your photos – among many others. It seems that as little as three likes are needed for Facebook to differentiate between whether a male user is homosexual or not, for instance. Additionally, analysis of behaviour on the social media website Twitter has been able to predict political election outcomes as accurately as internet polls.
Data like this can be used to generate profit, through means such as targeted advertising. However, it is not immediately clear how we benefit from the collection of some types of behavioural data. This includes the collection of your phone contacts by Facebook, or where and when you log into the social media platform. Another example of this is the storing of your location by Google and using it to create a timeline of where you have been from the start of your first Google use.
For most internet users, it is unclear what behavioural data exactly is being taken from them when they are online, and what in turn happens to this data. At times, behavioural data have been misused – an example of this is the AggregateIQ/VoteLeave case. In 2016, Canadian firm AggregateIQ was hired by pro-Brexit group VoteLeave to target potential Brexit-voters on Facebook. However, in doing so they both used personal information in ways that users had not consented to, which was a violation of their privacy.
The Big Tech companies, which have been labelled the ‘digital gatekeepers’, have been gaining structural power. It has therefore become important that the factors influencing the algorithms of their systems are visible to those who use them – this idea is called algorithmic transparency. The European Union aims to streamline the platform economy through regulations targeted at Big Tech. This is done through data protection and privacy laws, as well as laws targeting unfair competition practices. Organisations need to comply with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and European Competition Law may be applied in cases where platforms unfairly favour their own services over those of competitors.
Expectations that the future 5G infrastructure will further increase interconnectivity triggers concerns around the power of these digital gatekeepers, as their opportunities to collect even more data could grow. One avenue for increased data collection is through the improved connectivity of wearables such as smartwatches. Platforms connected to these devices could continuously mine data about our health. This could include our blood pressure, the number of steps we take, and even where we took those steps. Another example of this is the interconnectivity of devices within smart houses that can monitor many different types of information and preferences. This growth in interconnectivity calls for further strengthening of the online privacy regulations within the European Union.