- Catherine Kate
- Business Editor, BBC
The details of what each of us is looking for or seeing while browsing the internet are very important to some companies as it is a valuable source of revenue estimated at billions of dollars.
This data helps tracked companies like Google and Facebook to earn many billions of dollars a year in advertising revenue as they use the information they collect to target us with advertising.
For example, if you browse through the websites of online fashion stores and you are thinking of buying a new pair of jeans, it is assumed that within a short period of time you will see advertisements for jeans appear on your computer screen while browsing through another website, which is something that happens to all of us when we think of buying something online.
That we are so vulnerable to being tracked down while using the internet in this way is a little worrying. A recent study showed that data on the average European person’s internet usage is shared 376 times a day, and that number nearly doubles for American surfers, reaching 747 times.
But what if you can not only have more control over how much of your data is shared, but also make money from it?
This is the promise of a Canadian technology company called Surf, which last year launched a browser subsidiary of the same name, which has rewarded users for surfing the internet.
Still in beta or limited release phase in the US and Canada, this browser works by bypassing data trackers like Google, and selling your data directly to trademarks. In return, SURF gives you points that can be collected and for gift certificates collected at stores and get discounts.
Among the trademarks registered so far in this browser are “Foot Locker”, “The Body Shop”, “Crocs” and “Dyson”.
Surf ensures that all data it collects is anonymous, email addresses and phone numbers are not shared, and the subscriber does not have to mention his name when registering. However, he does ask about his age, gender and approximate residential address, but this information is not mandatory.
The idea is that brands can use the data that Serv provides in their ads. For example, a brand might see which sites are the most popular among men aged 18-24 living in Los Angeles. Then it can target this segment with its ads accordingly.
Surf did not release details on how much users could earn, but said it had enabled users to earn more than $ 1.2 million (£ 960,000) so far.
People can also use Serv to restrict the data they share when they use the internet, such as by blocking information about certain websites they visit.
Amina Al-Nour, a student at York University in Toronto, Canada, and a user of “Serf” says she feels this sub-browser has given her back the ability to “control” her data on the internet.
“You can choose what you (data) want to present to Serv,” adds Amina (21).
“Sometimes I forget to use the browser, and after a week I check my history there, and my score keeps going up,” she says.
“All digital technology companies will collect our information, but the goal is to make our experiences with technology better, right!” Amina continues.
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Swish Goshami, SURF co-founder and CEO, says the company strives to be the ‘Frequent Flyer Rewards Program for surfing the web’.
“From day one, we were clear with users about what we share and do not share, and we gave them the ability to control their data as well.”
“I think if you’re honest with people, and you tell them you’re sharing data with trademarks, and you do so while maintaining anonymity, please note that no one can refer to them, because we basically do not know the first name or surname the subscriber, then people are more relaxed to say ‘yes’ and share more with us. ”
Serv is part of a new, growing movement in the digital world, which some have called “responsible technology”, part of which is to give people more control over their data.
Another technology company operating in this field is Canadian startup Waverly, which enables people to browse their own news, rather than relying on Google News, Apple News and advertising-based algorithms.
Waverly users can select and categorize topics they are interested in, and the company’s AI software finds articles they think they want to read.
The Montreal-based company is the brainchild of its founder, Philippe Baudouin, who was previously an engineer at Google.
Users of the Waverly application can regularly change their preferences and send feedback on articles suggested to them.
Baudouin says users have to put in a bit of effort as they have to tell the app what things they care about, but in return they are freed from being “caught up in ads”.
“Responsible technology should empower users, but it should also not be ashamed to ask them to do work for themselves. Our AI program reads thousands of articles a day and indexes them.”
As for the US company Abine, which is owned by Rob Schaeffel, it makes two applications that enable the user to increase the level of privacy protection when using the internet, namely Blur “Blair” and Delete Me “Delete Me”. The first ensures that passwords and private payment details can not be traced. The second removes your personal information from search engines.
Schaffel says his view in this regard is that surfing the internet should come with “designed privacy”.
Carissa Velez, associate professor at the University of Oxford’s Institute for Artificial Intelligence Ethics, says technology companies need to be “motivated to develop business models that do not rely on the exploitation of personal data”.
“It is worrying that most of the algorithms that control our lives are manufactured by private companies without any form of oversight or direction to ensure that these algorithms support public utility and values,” Karissa adds.
“I do not think transparency is a panacea, or even a halfway solution,” she says, “but policymakers in particular need to have access to these algorithms.”
Google points to its new Privacy Sandbox initiative, which “aims to provide new, more privacy-friendly advertising solutions.”
“That’s why we work with regulators and the web community to create technologies through Privacy Sandbox that will protect the privacy of Internet users while helping keep content and access to online services free for all,” says a Google spokesperson.
“Later this year, we’ll launch the My Ad Center, which will allow us to expand our privacy controls, to give users more direct control over their information used to display ads to them.”