One Thursday evening in September, the North West’s digital elite poured into Oddfellows in Chester for our eighth Digital Garden Party. We feasted on digital enlightenment, chips, dips and other yummy fried goods.
But if the night’s discussion didn’t end with digital (drinks were involved), they certainly started with digital, thanks to our debate. Our brave challengers, Laura Bailey from Melbourne Hosting and Mat O’Connor from Sentient took to the stage, or rather the comfy armchairs, to discuss whether or not brands' online tracking has gone too far. A passionate subject if ever there was one.
So we begin. Laura, relieved to discover that the order of debaters was not decided by an obstacle course (we do like to tease), allowed Mat to kick things off.
At this stage, you may have held some concerns for Mat. Perhaps you expected him to be facing an audience sick of PPI calls and frustrated with an inbox full of junk. But Mat had done his homework and began with what is surely the most positive use of data sharing there is. Mat referenced the way Marie Curie use data to encourage people to fundraise, enable people to find their nearest centre and provide options to donate.
He then went on to discuss other ways our data is being used positively, with the example of Netflix - he actually said ‘Netflix and Chill’ but after googling the term we think perhaps this isn’t what Mat had in mind.
Mat discussed all the wonderful Netflix series he’s discovered after they’ve appeared in his suggested items on Netflix. And how did they get there? Netflix tracked what his friends and connections were saying on social media about the shows they were watching. So this tracking of Mat and his connected network, provided him with a positive and genuinely helpful experience. Really, is that not what digital advancement is all about? Providing a positive, more user-friendly experience?
With Mat’s two minutes up, it was over to Laura, who had a tougher crowd than expected. Do these people not get endless PPI calls?
Laura began by referencing the new terms and conditions on WhatsApp. You’ve probably seen them pop up on your screen. Seen them? Yes. Read them? Perhaps not. These long terms and conditions discuss all the ways WhatsApp is now going to use and sell your data. By ‘data’ they mean how often you message, who you message, keywords in your messages. They’re going to monitor and then supply this information to their partner company, Facebook. The purpose being that Facebook can serve more targeted ads.
OK so ads are annoying, but is this really that bad? Well, Laura continued with a rather poignant example - you tell one friend on WhatsApp that you’re pregnant, with WhatsApp's new rules there’s every chance that baby ads could start popping up on your Facebook. Not told your mum yet? Whoops. Not told your boss yet? Much worse. You get the picture, this is surely the start of a bigger problem.
Audience member, Callum Reckless, pointed out that these companies are not a charity, they offer a free service and therefore need to get something back. Laura agreed but stressed the need for more education around how the data is being used. There appears to be a blind spot, where people are simply unaware what they’re signing up to and how much of their personal data is available.
Laura highlighted that due to the way our personal data is gathered, used and sold, we’re no longer in control of what personal information is out there. Cue some scary ghost noises and a reminder that, that video of you rapping in your bedroom aged 17 could well reappear, and we’re seeing the other side of online tracking.
So time was up. The statements had been laid out and it was up to the audience to decide the winner. It was extremely close, but our winner was Mat from Sentient. He put up a great argument, and admitted afterwards that he did have a digital-loving crowd, which could only have helped. What a gent. A huge thanks to both our debaters for such a funny and informed debate.