In the fight for our data rights, are we Slacking off?

Fiona Bates

25 Oct 2017



A few weeks ago my brilliant colleague Laura Robinson wrote about instant messaging (IM) changing the way we work, concluding that in the next 20 years email will be as relevant as the telegram is in 2017. Whether she turns out to be right or not we’ll have to wait and see, but as ever in tech there is always another perspective. And in this case, I’m not convinced it would be a good thing for that to happen. Yes, we complain when we turn our backs for a second and our inbox fills, but that’s because globally a staggering 269 billion emails are sent each day, between just over 3.7 billion email users worldwide, according to research by The Radicati Group. While IM has its place in helping us battle that and be more productive, there are bigger, more worrying trends at stake when we look at the largely Silicon-based enterprises managing these online chat services.


Last week WhatsApp launched its Live Location feature, allowing users to share their location, so friends or colleagues know where you are – a feature the IM service has borrowed from parent company Facebook. It apparently reflects the ongoing ‘enriching’ of messaging platforms. But enriching for who? Mostly, I would argue, for WhatsApp, which now has access to a whole host of valuable data it can monetise and sell on to advertisers. Tech giants like Google and Facebook have created entire business models on the mass collection of consumer data in return for ad revenue; exploiting the fact that industry regulation is simply unable to keep pace with technology. As we adopt more IM channels and give away more of our data, we slowly erode our right to privacy. So we’re giving more of our data away – but at the same time ironically making it harder for us to access and use ourselves. The recent Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) probe is a case in point. Even possibly the most traditional organisation in the UK – the British government – has been swept up by the Slack craze. But what it has failed to think through is how to deal with the official information that's exchanged on Slack, which needs to be both recorded properly for posterity and made accessible to the public through the Freedom of Information Act. So that data is readily available to the owners of Slack, but not UK citizens.

Staying open

What underpins all of this is that instant messengers are currently an assortment of closed-source internet platforms, which keep our data in silos. It’s why we always have several chat apps on the go at once – none of which talk to each other. Less than desirable. 20 years ago this wasn’t the case. Online communication was conducted over open protocols, instead of proprietary networks like Facebook or Slack. And email still operates in that way – there’s no lock in; you can switch your email provider and still email everyone else, no matter which platform they’re on. Email is still true to those open standards, and we shouldn’t move away from that too hastily.

Digital dominance

Now that IM platforms are an entrenched part of everyday life, it’s easy to think the world of digital communications belongs to Mark Zuckerberg. However, with an annual growth rate of 4.4% forecast over the next four years, Radicati Group estimates that by the end of 2021 over 316 billion emails will be sent each day and there will be 4.1 billion email users – that’s over half the entire world’s population. I certainly hope that IM doesn’t replace that. Plus with GDPR around the corner, there’s an argument to stick with email, as the most reliable form of communication and because it’s the approved standard. As with many issues in tech, this is a complicated one. I’m not saying we shouldn’t use instant messaging tools, but I am confident there’s two sides to every Harvard blog.