The details of what each of us looks at on the Internet is an incredibly valuable resource.
This tracked data helps the likes of Google and Facebook earn billions and billions of dollars annually in advertising revenue, as they use the information to target ads at us.
For example, if you’re browsing online fashion retailers to buy a new pair of jeans, you should soon see ads for your jeans appearing elsewhere on your computer screen. We’ve all seen this happen with respect to everything we’ve been thinking about buying it.
The level we track online in this way is somewhat concerning. A recent study showed that the average European has data about their internet use that is shared 376 times a day. For US surfers, this roughly doubles to the 747.
But what if you could not only have more control over how much data is shared, but also make money from it?
That’s the promise of a Canadian tech company called Surf, which last year launched an extension for a browser of the same name. Rewards people for surfing the internet.
Still in beta or limited release phase, it works by bypassing the likes of Google, and instead selling your data directly to retail brands. In return, Surf gives you points that can be saved and then redeemed for store gift cards and discounts.
Companies that have registered so far include Foot Locker, The Body Shop, Crocs and Dyson.
Surf notes that all data is anonymous – your email addresses and phone numbers aren’t shared, and you don’t have to mention your name when you sign up. However, it does ask for your age, gender and approximate address, but these are not mandatory.
The idea is that brands can use data provided by Surf, for example, to find out which sites are most popular among 18-24-year-olds in Los Angeles. Then their ads can then be targeted accordingly.
Surf has not released details of how much people can earn, but so far it says it has enabled users to earn more than $97,000 (£77,000) collectively.
People can also use Surf to limit the data they share, such as by blocking information about certain sites they visit.
Amina Alnour, a student at York University, is a Surf user, and says she feels the extension has put her back in “control” of her online data.
“You get to choose what you want to present to Surf,” the 21-year-old adds. “Other times I forget I’m using it, and a week later I’ll check it out, and my score will continue to go up.
“All tech companies will collect our information, but the goal is to make our experiences using technology better, right,” adds the 21-year-old.
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Soish Goswamu, founder and CEO of Surf, says the company wants to be “frequent flyer rewards for surfing.”
He adds, “From day one we’ve been clear with users about what we share and don’t share, giving them the ability to control their data as well.
“I think if you’re upfront with people, and you tell them you’re sharing data with brands, and you do it anonymously — that is, they can’t be traced back because we don’t have their first or last name, then people are more comfortable saying yes and sharing more with us. “.
Surf is part of a growing movement that some commentators have called “responsible technology,” part of which is to give people more control over their data.
Another technology company in this field is Canadian startup Waverly, which allows people to aggregate their own news feeds instead of relying on Google News, tracker Apple News, and ad-based algorithms.
With Waverly, you fill in the topics you’re interested in, and its AI software finds articles you think you’d like to read. The Montreal-based company is the brainchild of founder Philippe Baudouin who was previously an engineer at Google.
Users of the app can change their preferences regularly and send feedback on articles recommended to them.
Users have to put in a little effort, Baudouin says, as they have to tell the app what things they care about, but in return they are freed from being “trapped by ads”.
“Responsible technology should empower users, but it also shouldn’t be shy about asking them to do some work for them,” he says.
“[In return] Our AI reads thousands of articles every day and indexes them [for users]. “
Abine, owned by Rob Shavell in the United States, makes two applications that enable 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.
Schaffel says his point is that surfing the web should come with “privacy by design.”
Carissa Velez, associate professor at Oxford University’s Institute for Artificial Intelligence Ethics, says tech companies need to be “motivated to develop business models that do not depend on the exploitation of personal data”.
“It is worrying that most of the algorithms that govern our lives are produced by private companies without any kind of oversight or direction to ensure that these algorithms uphold our public goods and values,” she adds.
“I don’t think transparency is a panacea, or even half of the solution, but policymakers in particular should have access to algorithms.”
Google is referring to its new “Privacy Sandbox” initiative, which “aims to offer new, more personalized advertising solutions.”
A Google spokesperson says: “That’s why we’re collaborating with regulators and the web community to create technologies, through the Privacy Sandbox, that will protect people’s online privacy while helping keep online content and services free for everyone.
“Later this year, we will launch the My Ad Center, which expands our privacy controls to give people more direct control over the information used to show them ads.”