Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
4 mins read

“Consumers are in debate with themselves”: The new battleground of data and privacy

Privacy and data use have never been more at the forefront of consumers’ minds. Ting Cai, Partner Director of Product and Technology at Microsoft, says “a perfect balance” can be found.

Tell us a bit about the topic you will be covering at FIPP World Media Congress and why it’s such an important issue right now.

There are a lot of conversations in the media, including around Facebook, Google and Apple – and it’s all about privacy. And I think the problem that the consumer is facing is that there are a lot of the things that they didn’t know about. Facebook was using their data not only to make money for themselves but also to sell their data – they didn’t know that and these things are surprising to a lot of consumers, so there’s a lack of transparency there. Because that is so shocking to a lot of people, there is now a lot of talk about how we respond – even talk about government regulation. Of course, the tech companies don’t want that – they want to self-regulate. So that’s kind of the debate right now.

Is the issue complicated by the fact data is so at the heart of everything we want to deliver to consumer now?

That’s right. When we ask people – we did a lot of surveys around privacy with our users – it gets interesting. They say they want privacy. But when we ask them if they want certain features or personalised content, they say ‘yes, absolutely’. So I think the issue is that the consumers are in debate with themselves about what they want. Do they want privacy or do they want convenience? 

There’s also a huge implication for the businesses. We have seen huge revenue differences with personalsation versus non-personalisation. Of course, whether you are a newspaper or a magazine business, that will have an impact on the design of your products and how you create personalisaton. How do they design a product that gives readers what they want but respects their privacy, is transparent and gives them control? It needs to be addressed because it is clear that the best revenue comes from personalisation and adding value by serving up other things audiences want. But that value exchange needs to be transparent. So it’s really a massive topic for debate right now.

Have we reached a pivotal moment where this issue has never been so important but will never be this big again? Do you feel like now is the moment we draw the line in the sand?

I think exactly that. Because we have never seen this level of consumer awareness before and we are at the boundary. Ultimately, though, I think there is a win-win situation for businesses and consumers – with personalisation that is transparent. Until now, they have perhaps seen privacy and data issues as separate to personalisation. But now the realisation is there.

Your organisation is at the forefront of the issue. How do you handle it internally?

We have a dedicated team for privacy and security compliance. Microsoft is obviously a big enterprise and a majority of our profit comes via the enterprise business. So we have a dedicated team with experts on these topics and every single product goes through a compliance and security review. So we obviously take it very seriously and it means that sometimes it can take a long time – but it’s necessary.

Where do you see us in terms of privacy and security in the coming years – will we see moves towards regulation or a greater focus on self-regulation?

You know, as our CEO always says, Microsoft self-regulates. That’s our preferred way forward and we are working with some other tech companies to get there. I think some other disruptive force is necessary and I think the best outcome is self-regulation.

What about regional differences? This is obviously a massive issue in the western world right now – but what differences exist in attitudes to this topic in other parts of the world?

There are definitely differences. I have travelled to more than 30 different countries and almost every continent, and it’s interesting. Let’s take China as an example. As you know, in China there is surveillance everywhere – facial recognition in elevators and things like that. They have facial recognition for people when they buy a house or when they check in at a hotel – and that’s obviously one extreme.

If you take Europe, however, with the GDPR regulations, I see more companies respecting privacy. And in the US I think that’s the case too. But I still don’t like the way a lot of sites are doing it. Because they are notifying the user but not really giving them a choice. They are saying  ‘you’ve got to accept this before you can see my site’ but they are putting the consumer in a difficult position – because the consumer wants it but has no other way to get it. I just think there has to be a better balance – such as giving some content at first and then maybe asking for the exchange later. I understand businesses have got to make money but it’s better to keep it human.

By Jon Watkins  @JonWatkinsAt7

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