More and more online services are making money out of people's personal details. But while users are not generally reticent about putting a theoretical value on each type of information, many of them are uncomfortable about the monetisation process.

Users place a special value on their personal information when on the Internet. Researchers at the University of Columbia and at Telefonica Research carried out a survey among Spanish Internet users to assess their attitudes and feelings about companies capturing and monetising some of the personal details divulged when they use free online services - Google, Facebook, etc. The study, which was carried out over two months, involved installing a plugin in the Firefox browser. The plugin recorded the user’s actions – sites visited, frequency, activities, etc – and from time to time made a pop-up appear, asking how much the person would be willing to sell a given piece of information to a company for, depending on the context. One example used was photos on Facebook.

Clued-up, but reluctant to sell data

Along with the pop-up, more general questions were posted to find out how much users knew about data privacy on the Internet. Unsurprisingly, the researchers discovered that Internet users wanted over three times as much money for handing over information on their actual identity - age, sex, address, financial situation – as for information linked to sites they liked to visit. They were asking on average €25 for personal details compared with €7 for activity data. They also put a higher value on information regarding their social interactions or financial transactions than on their online shopping or search activities. However, while users appear well aware that most free online service sites are busy capturing their personal data, they are in general extremely uncomfortable with the idea of it being monetised.

Poor understanding of the ecosystem of online free services

In fact the users surveyed would generally prefer information captured by the websites they browse on a day-to-day basis to be used to improve online services. The researchers point out that this mindset reveals a poor understanding among Internet surfers of the way these services work. It seems that most users haven’t realized that Google, Facebook and their fellow providers incur substantial costs to maintain their data-centres, rent bandwidth and so on.