This morning’s Observer column:
Whenever regulators gather to discuss market failures, the cliche “level playing field” eventually surfaces. When regulators finally get around to thinking about what happens in the online world, especially in the area of personal data, then they will have to come to terms with the fact that the playing field is not just tilted in favour of the online giants, but is as vertical as that rockface in Yosemite that two Americans have finally managed to free climb.
The mechanism for rotating the playing field is our old friend, the terms and conditions agreement, usually called the “end user licence agreement” (EULA) in cyberspace. This invariably consists of three coats of prime legal verbiage distributed over 32 pages, which basically comes down to this: “If you want to do business with us, then you will do it entirely on our terms; click here to agree, otherwise go screw yourself. Oh, and by the way, all of your personal data revealed in your interactions with us belongs to us.”
The strange thing is that this formula applies regardless of whether you are actually trying to purchase something from the author of the EULA or merely trying to avail yourself of its “free” services.
When the history of this period comes to be written, our great-grandchildren will marvel at the fact that billions of apparently sane individuals passively accepted this grotesquely asymmetrical deal. (They may also wonder why our governments have shown so little interest in the matter.)…