Customer Transparency Reports

In the growing age of “Big Data”, government transparency reports are all the rage. Companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, and others are publishing “transparency reports”. They are all trying to one up each other with their screams of transparency. While this is a step forward in one direction, it’s not what people seem to really want to see. Sure, I want to know how intrusive the national government is into these companies. However, let’s talk about me. And by “me”, I mean you. And by you, I mean the individual. What do Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc collect about you? How do they use this data? Where do they get this data? Who do they sell it to? And to be clear, citizens of the European Union have a right to a copy of all your data held at these companies. But not citizens of the United States.

The answer is “hell if I know”. Each company has a privacy policy. They almost all start by stating their commitment to your privacy, how they cherish, love, hug, and cuddle your individual data like a snowflake. And then they spend the next ten to twenty paragraphs talking about how they collect all your data and share it with just about anyone who asks for it. There’s the data you give them; like your friends, birthdays, searching for products, financial information (like credit cards), etc. There’s the data they collect as you use their sites; IP address, geographical location in the world, browser type (Firefox, IE, Chrome, Safari, etc), screen resolution, operating system (windows, osx, etc), what you read, what you shop for, time of day you are on the site, what you look at, how long you look at it, how far into an article you read, and so on. And then there’s the data they buy from data brokers about you.

Imagine your profile now. Super detailed info all about you, snowflake. In theory, each site can quickly collate your info, package your data up, and sell it to buyers as many times as they want. The data is also used to better target ads, products, stories, friend connections, etc. What do they actually have about you? They can’t tell you. Google comes the closest with their Account History page. And they have a Dashboard. However, it still only tells you some of the information you gave to them. Generally, the data you entered yourself. It doesn’t show what they’ve collected about you. It doesn’t show what they collated and bought about you. Why not? I’ve asked some people in positions who should know at various companies. I was told that it would be too complex to compile all of that together. Or they don’t store a profile like that in any one easy collection. Or displaying the data would take a long time to work out how/what do display and to help the user understand it all. Or really, if users saw it all, they’d just opt out of everything and the company would go bankrupt.

Let’s take Amazon for example. It’s pretty easy to figure out what you’ve given them and what they’ve collected about your usage of the site. You can influence your recommendations. Your purchase history is all there for the viewing. Your wishlist influences what they suggest. Do you get a different set of product suggestions depending upon where you are in the world? Even when logged into your Amazon account? The answer is yes. They do look at your geographic location based on your IP address. This influences what products they display. Amazon also blocks access to some content based on your geographic location as determined by your IP address. Even though Amazon knows I’m a US citizen, has my address, and my payment information (which they check is valid), if I try to watch content from outside the US, I’m told I’m not allowed.

Since you can derive all of this info from a few minutes of poking around their site, why not just collate it and show it to me? This is a user transparency report.It’ll probably take some steps to get to a better relationship with your customers and users. Step one is to show the user and let them decide to continue with the site or not. Step two is to let them decide what can be collected or not. Step three is to learn where else data is collected and imported into your profile. Step four is to let the user decide what can be shared with the main company or its affiliates.

I can imagine the outcry from companies about having to do all of this. However, they already do it at some level to provide you service and to sell your data to others, maybe through data brokers. If you’re going to have “big data”, might as well make it useful for everyone, not just your business. I’ve met many people willing to pay for their service at a site if it meant removing the ads, removing the data collection from the ads, and not having their data sold without their consent. The first company to commit to these steps may find itself wildly profitable with strong user retention and engagement.

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