The Value of Data in Modern Society


Megabytes, Gigabytes and Terabytes: data is produced and consumed everyday by everyone. But how much do consumers value data, and why are the tech giants so determined to compete for it?

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Image by Bob Mical

By Barney Andrews

Consuming data

Social media apps and search engines are now a facet of everyday life. They are considered “free” to use and are brilliant technologies for communicating with friends and family, or googling words you do not understand in preparation for seminars. However, in recent years the risk of relinquishing your data to social media platforms has become apparent, with serious consequences for young people.

TikTok appears to have the loosest attitude towards young people’s data. In December last year, a 12-year-old girl from London announced her intentions to bring forward a damages claim against six firms who were said to be responsible for TikTok and its predecessor app, for the “loss of control of personal data.” Through this action, she is seeking the deletion of her data.

The current children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, intends to bring a “representative” action on behalf of all other under-16s who use the short-form video platform. The app argues that the full TikTok experience is technically only made available to users over 13, though the app is available to people under that age threshold in what TikTok vaguely calls a “limited app experience.” What that entails, and how easy it is to subvert the restricted version of the app, is unclear.

TikTok has a history of data breaches. In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission sued the platform for $5.7 million for the illegal collection of names, pictures, email addresses and location of children under the age of 13. It is reassuring that regulatory bodies have stepped in but TikTok still remains as popular as ever. Light entertainment can be a welcome relief from the sometimes “all work no play” feeling of lockdown, however apps that celebrate “stars” aged around 13 years old must face stronger regulation.

Competing for data

Consumers may not fully understand what happens to their data, though it clearly holds real value for some of the most profitable companies in the world. A ruling in Australia on 17 February forced Google and Facebook to pay local publishers whenever their content appears on digital platforms. This exposed the importance of data as a source of revenue for the tech giants. The Economist calculates that between them, Google, and Facebook account for perhaps 60 percent of worldwide digital-advertising revenues. However, digital advertising is only lucrative if tech companies know how to target their adverts and direct user traffic to local publisher websites.

Facebook took no time in expressing its displeasure and decided to restrict all news content both from Australian publishers and international outlets from appearing on its platforms in the country. Google’s response to the new ruling was more conciliatory, signing a three-year licensing deal with the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp. The radical nature of Facebook’s response represents how vital digital advertising (using consumers’ data) is to the revenue streams in Silicon Valley.

What should we do with our data?

Digital leaders’ attention has turned to carving up the cloud. This is the future of data storage and will likely become an ever more vital product for consumers. Put simply, clients send files to a data server maintained by a cloud provider instead of (or as well as) storing it on their own hard drives. Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are all competing for the crown of being the major cloud provider.

For consumers, a rather small 5GB cloud storage is offered for free on Amazon and Apple, though as ever Amazon Prime works its magic by offering free unlimited cloud storage for photos in Amazon cloud drive with prime subscription. Big tech is harnessing the power of big data far more quickly than we can imagine; it is important to understand these trends to protect consumer privacy and competently interface with new technology in the future.

According to a PWC data analytics report in 2019, the world produces one quintillion bytes of data per day, with 90 percent of all data in 2019 produced in the two years previous. Consumers must understand the importance their data holds to companies, and regulatory bodies must do more to help users understand what happens to their data.

Data has revolutionised our understanding of the world, but its dangers must be recognised if big tech goes unchecked. I for one, would prefer to be able to follow the xG philosophy on Twitter, without worrying about a server in the sky harvesting my information for profit.