The Here and Now

by | May 22, 2017

In 1957 A German pharmaceutical company released Contegran onto the market, a drug marketed as being a sedative.  By October of that year it became an over-the-counter treatment for morning sickness. Very quickly things started happening that people linked to the drug, but no one was willing to stick their neck out and voice their fears. Fast forward to 1962 and grave concerns were raised about the side effects of the drug that we now know as Thalidomide.

It’s a weird way to start off a blog about business, but I think we have a lot to learn from our mistakes of the past.

There is little doubt that Thalidomide is an incredible drug, and even though it’s controversial, it’s coming back into use for treating an array of cancers, leprosy, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s.  The issues of its past use were instrumental in creating the rigorous testing and registration for new drugs that we now have in place.  Researchers are much clearer about what risks are acceptable and which are not – where is the risk cut-off?

This makes me think about data.  Consumers are still (blissfully) ignorant of what they are giving away when they sign up to social media sites or use a file sharing app or get an OS update or order all their Christmas presents online.  Like Thalidomide, we are too eager to accept the here-and-now benefits to bother thinking about the longer-term implications of what we are agreeing to.

In the past I’ve been supportive of the ICO and their aims, but the recent change in their leadership and their stance as overlords of UK data protection have changed my opinion of them; less carrot, more stick … which never works and usually causes conflict. However, it is what it is, so businesses must step up, get educated and ensure they uphold their side of the DP deal. This is what the ICO have been banging on about for the last two months – the charity’s or business’s responsibility.

But what about the consumer side of the equation? There are always multiple sides to any transaction and in terms of DP it’s the business on one side and the consumer on the other. Both sides have a responsibility, so when are consumers going to start paying attention to theirs?  When are consumers going to be forced to make a proper assessment of what they are doing when they sign up to another social media package or upgrade the operating system to their fruit based phone product?

If businesses and charities aren’t allowed to use ignorance as a defence, then neither should consumers.

This might seem really harsh, but I’m fed up of hearing consumers on yet another documentary (Panorama and Facebook) blathering on about not knowing what XYZ Company were doing with their data.  First off, this was poor reporting – Facebook didn’t invent profiling, it’s been around for years and pre-dates the internet. Facebook was born in 2004, Google was born in 1998 – both are prolific users of profiling, that is not being argued.  However, there’s a bigger profiler in this country and that’s Tesco and their Clubcard, which has been around since 1995.  Prior to that we had targeted advertising (because that’s all profiling really is) which has been around in a form we recognise since the 1950’s; although for purists out there advertising has been around much longer, with Coca Cola introducing the iconic red robed Santa Claus in 1931, and Isabella Beeton’s husband, Samuel, building up such a fervour over his wife’s weekly column, that 60,000 copies of her Book of Household Management sold in its first year of publication.

Secondly, what in God’s name did these people think they were agreeing to when they scrolled to the bottom of the T’s and C’s in the fastest time possible and clicked on ‘I agree’?  At what point did we become oblivious to the fact we are being marketed to, and the marketing is what pays for us to have access to an inexhaustible pool of information, entertainment and connection?

I’m in no way blaming the women who took Thalidomide for the outcomes; history has shown that the blame for this lies squarely at the feet of the pharmaceutical firm.  But they had a choice then, like we have a choice now, and at some point, it’s absolutely right and fair to challenge the purported ignorance of the consumer and the part they played in their tale of woe.

Ask yourself this: if you were given a choice of using Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat exactly as you do now, knowing your data is being analysed so that you can be marketed products that match your profile, or having a completely marketing free experience with none of your data used but you had to pay an annual subscription to retain your anonymity, what would you chose?

If you chose the first option then you must ask yourself if your indignation when you receive marketing messages from other organisations (such as charities) is appropriate, because when it comes to it you have no issue with the process as long as it benefits you. It would be interesting to see the figures from the ICO on how many complaints they’ve received about marketing communications and compare those brought against charities versus those made about social media platforms, Tesco’s or Apple.

And if you’re wondering why I’m so impassioned about this, it’s because I’m angry at the unfairness of the situation we find ourselves in, and the consumers who use their ignorance selectively to directly benefit themselves, with no consideration for the impact it’s having elsewhere. At least when I click on ‘I agree’ I can so with a clear conscience. Can you?

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