When asked to reflect on the reasons why Google is able to offer its range of search and productivity tools for free or Facebook its near-ubiquitous and feature-rich social network without charge, user reaction ranges from ignorance to acceptance.
These are, after all, businesses that trade on data – your data. The ignorant don’t know and the rest either don’t care or are prepared to accept the terms of engagement.
Google and Facebook (and many more companies besides) segment cohorts of their users by age, social class, location, academic achievement and likely spending power; they measure sentiment, behaviours and preferences; and they then sell access to advertisers. Advertising accounts for 90 per cent of Google’s revenue. For Facebook, the figure is nearer 96 per cent.
Both companies have built hugely profitable, multi-billion dollar businesses on the back of understanding you and your fellow users. Yes, the insights and intelligence helps improve the service – sophisticated recommendation engines, for example – but the business is predicated on being able to better serve the advertiser.
As the aphorism has it: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” And many people are happy with that trade-off, happy to make a pact of this kind, happy to share anonymised data in exchange for free and highly tuned services.
And this is where the BBC comes in. It too wants to collect and interrogate user data to improve its services. In the words of director general Tony Hall it wants to “reinvent public service broadcasting through data” no less.
This is the premise behind myBBC. Registration and personalisation allows the BBC to notify viewers when a new series of their favourite show arrives, when football matches begin, interviews air, news breaks and traffic gets bad.
It’s also about allowing viewers to watch the same programme from multiple devices and to pick up where they left off regardless of device. All this relies on registration, identification and user data.
Some of the services are available already – the BBC News app was launched in January and within two months 1.6 million people had personalised it around their own interests – while other services are in the pipeline.
That 1.6 million number is impressive but there are many other licence fee payers who have their doubts about the trade-off. And here’s the paradox: although the BBC doesn’t have a profit motive it is held to a higher standard than those (mainly American) commercial services that use data to maximise income.
While we feel relaxed about signing up to Netflix or having an iTunes account, we feel a little more uncomfortable about signing up to the BBC in the same way. This may be about its universality, its perceived connection to government or neither of these.
Regardless, trust and responsibility are the twin watchwords and the BBC needs to underpin its services with the right processes, technologies and messaging.
Let’s consider one particular example of how digital affects a broadcaster. In a non-linear world the 9pm watershed has become an anachronism. In an always on, on demand environment, scheduling no longer provides cues, clues and nudges about the appropriateness of content. And the passing of the watershed, in turn, speaks to a wider governance and identity challenge. It puts greater pressure on the broadcasters to create “sticky” controls ensuring that the right people at the right age are exposed to the right content.
Privacy and security concerns, too, butt up against future models of broadcasting. The October 2015 hack on broadband provider TalkTalk and its four million customers provide a clue to why customers / licence-fee payers remain sceptical about the absolute security of their data.
The BBC understands this. Phil Fearnley, the man responsible for myBBC, made this pledge in a blog post earlier this year: “We will never sell your data, let other organisations track what you do with the BBC for their own purposes, or spam you … We have no reason to collect your data other than to serve you better.”
There’s little reason to doubt the sincerity of those words but for the BBC the bar is somehow higher.
He is a former Management Consultant, having spent five years at A. T. Kearney, advising and leading on IT Outsourcing and operational efficiency solutions across a broad range of sectors.
He is a graduate of Manchester University, Electronics and Electrical Engineering, FIET, holds a Dip. Law from City University and completed his Bar Finals in 1995. He is the former Chair of the City of London Citizen's Advice Bureau and Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists.
He is married, with one son, and lives in Islington. Outside of work, his interests include music, and writing screenplays.