The details of what each of us watches online is an incredibly valuable resource.
This tracked data helps companies like Google and Facebook earn billions and billions of dollars a year in ad revenue because they use this information to target us with ads.
For example, if you are browsing online fashion retailers to potentially purchase a new pair of jeans, very soon you should see advertisements for denim pants popping up elsewhere on your computer screen. We’ve all seen this happen with anything we thought we were buying.
The level to which we are followed online in this way is somewhat disconcerting. The average European has data about their internet usage shared 376 times a day, according to a recent study. For American surfers, that nearly doubles to 747.
But what if you could not only have more control over the amount of your shared data, but also make money from it?
That’s the promise of a Canadian tech company called Surf, which launched a browser extension of the same name last year. It rewards people who surf the Internet.
Still in its beta or limited release phase, it works by bypassing the likes of Google and instead sells your data directly to retail brands. In return, Surf gives you points which can be accumulated and then redeemed for gift cards and discounts.
Companies listed so far include Foot Locker, The Body Shop, Crocs and Dyson.
Surf emphasizes that all data is anonymous – your email addresses and phone numbers are not shared and you don’t have to give your name when signing up. It does, however, ask for your age, gender, and approximate address, but these are not required.
The idea is that brands can use the data provided by Surf to, for example, see which websites are most popular among 18-24 year old males in Los Angeles. Then they can then target their ads accordingly.
Surf hasn’t released details of how much people can win, but so far says it has allowed users to collectively win over $97,000 (£77,000).
Users can also use Surf to limit the data they share, for example by blocking information about certain websites they visit.
One Surf user is York University student Aminah Al-Noor, who says she feels the extension has given her “control” back over her online data.
“You can choose what you want to offer surfing,” adds the 21-year-old. “And other times I forget I have it, and a week later I go to check, and my points just keep going up.
“All tech companies will collect our information, but the goal is to improve our experiences using technology, right,” the 21-year-old adds.
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Surf’s founder and chief executive, Swish Goswamo, said the company wanted to be “the reward for frequent internet surfing travelers”.
He adds: “From day one, we’ve been clear with users about what we share and don’t share, and we also give them the ability to control their data.
“I think if you’re upfront with people and let them know that you’re sharing data with brands, and you’re doing it anonymously – that is, it can’t come back to them because that we don’t have their first or last name, so people are more comfortable saying ‘yes’ and sharing more with us.”
Surfing is part of a growing movement that some commentators have called “responsible technology,” part of which is giving people more control over their data.
Another tech company in this space is Canadian start-up Waverly, which allows people to compile their own news feeds rather than relying on the tracking and advertising algorithms of Google News and Apple News.
With Waverly, you fill in the topics you’re interested in and its AI software finds the articles it thinks you’d like to read. The Montreal company is the brainchild of founder Philippe Beaudoin, a former Google engineer.
App users can regularly change their preferences and send feedback on articles recommended to them.
Beaudoin says users have to put in a bit of effort, in that they have to tell the app what interests them, but in return they are freed from the “ads trap”.
“Responsible technology should empower users, but it also shouldn’t be shy about asking them to do work on their behalf,” he says.
“[In return] our AI reads thousands of articles per day, and places them in an index [for users].”
Rob Shavell’s American company Abine makes two applications that allow the user to increase their privacy – Blur and Delete Me. The former ensures that your passwords and payment details cannot be tracked, while the latter removes your personal information from search engines.
Mr Shavell says his view is that internet browsing should come with “privacy by design”.
Carissa Veliz, an associate professor at the University of Oxford’s Institute of AI Ethics, says tech companies need to be “incentivized to develop business models that don’t depend on the mining of personal data” .
“It is disturbing that most of the algorithms that govern our lives are produced by private companies without any kind of oversight or guidance to ensure that these algorithms support our public goods and values,” she adds.
“I don’t think transparency is the panacea, or even half the solution, but policymakers in particular should have access to algorithms.”
Google highlights its new “Privacy Sandbox” initiative, which has “the objective of introducing new, more private advertising solutions”.
A Google spokesperson said, “That’s why we’re working with regulators and the web community to create technologies, through the Privacy Sandbox, that will protect people’s privacy online while helping to keep content and free online services for everyone.
“Later this year, we’ll be launching My Ad Center, which expands our privacy controls to give people more direct control over what information is used to show them ads.”