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‘Brand wars’ make personal data a strategic commercial issue

Posted on: Friday 24th of May 2013

To see just how vicious the privacy battle between Microsoft and Google is getting, take a look at Microsoft’s parody of Google’s latest ad campaign. It’s one minute of extraordinary content.

Of course Microsoft has its own commercial agenda. For example, it’s desperate to persuade consumers to switch their default search engine from Google to Bing. But that’s the point. The issue of ‘privacy’ and personal data is no longer about some individuals’ sensitivity or squeamishness, abstract moral debates or arcane policy wrangles. It’s moving on. It’s now about money – big money – as brands realise that the stance they take on personal data – giving individuals more control over how their data is collected, managed and used – is becoming both a make-or-break reputation issue and a business opportunity.

Microsoft isn’t alone in this. Take Intel’s launch of WeTheData. While the initiative takes a rather ‘campaigny’ stance (“For the People, By the People!”) behind it lies major commercial interest. Intel is a key infrastructure provider for the entire data industry and it’s placing its commercial bets on platform openness, data literacy, universal digital access, and digital trust – ‘the ability to control our personal data’.

Explaining why they are doing it, Intel say: “Currently, most personal data is gathered by large institutions and corporations who keep it for their own purposes. We are interested in fostering a conversation around core challenges for empowering a much more decentralised approach – where individuals retain more control over their personal data, collaboratively discover its value and directly benefit from it.”

So here’s another major brand pinning its colours to the mast of personal information empowerment, not because it’s a nice thing to do, but because it sees bigger commercial benefits from coming down in favour of information empowerment than against.

The changing balance of commercial incentives

There’s lots more where that came from.

Telefonica has committed to a strategy of becoming ‘The most trusted provider of brilliant digital experiences’. This has far reaching implications for its information relationship with its customers. Once businesses start making investments that change customer behaviours – encouraging customers to choose this brand instead of that on the grounds of its ‘privacy’ or personal data performance, to use tools and services to manage their data or protect theiry privacy, or to set and change permissions and preferences – things start moving very fast indeed.

Another example is AVG Technologies’ acquisition of Privacy Choice – a service that helps individuals understand how web sites are collecting and using their data, see privacy ratings scores of the web sites they visit, and control privacy and ‘’Do Not Track’ settings. As Privacy Choice founder Jim Brock points out, this means his company’s tools and services can now be rolled out to 160 million AVG users: not only is AVG repositioning itself as a promoter of personal information empowerment, it’s also making tools and services available that educate users and change their behaviours.

A tipping point

Separately and together these corporate initiatives are transforming the personal data debate in business.

Not long ago most businesses treated personal data as a narrow, technical compliance issue. Then some began to factor in broader reputational implications. But only now is the agenda moving on to focus on the commercial incentives that drive businesses’ decisions and actions. And that’s a tipping point.