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How The BBC Does Ethical Personalisation

The BBC is spearheading a new more democratic and fair internet infrastructure where they just borrow our data to give us personalised content.

Build a new system that allows the BBC to enrich its user data with the same users’ data from Netflix and Spotify and give them personalised recommendations on BBC content. The BBC itself should not have any access at all to the data from Netflix or Spotify.

This is the interesting experiment, which the BBC Research and Development is working on. It could be called ‘ethical personalisation’ and it’s the opposite of what is happening today in the personalisation business, where companies typically collect and sit on all the data.

Eleni Sharp, Executive Product Manager (photo) and Rhia Jones, who leads the ethical data research programme, from BBC R&D told that they want to help build a better and more democratic internet in stead of the current, where multinational companies hold your data and you have no idea how to control them.

“Our mandate is much broader than BBC-specific interests,” said Rhia Jones. “This new approach offers people more oversight and agency of their data.”

The system is built on top a a new technology, Solid, which is an open-source Personal Data Store (PDS) developed by the company Inrupt. The inventor of www, Tim Berners-Lee, is behind this and the PDS gives you access to personal services based on shared data that you control.

“Holding people’s personal data to shape your services carries a regulatory risk, in My PDS we have a security model that we think reduces that level of risk,” says Eleni Sharp.

The risks encompass the responsibility any company has, when it stores other peoples’ data, which the BBC is not doing here, and also the risk of compromising users’ data privacy.

The PDS-movement is described in DataEthics’ new book ‘A Data Democracy Comes With Individual Data Control’ (2021) (free for download) and also in chapter 13 of our Data Ethics book from 2016.

Various companies are experimenting with or pushing for this movement; Deutsche Bank, Mastercard, MAIF and KPC are just some of them, but the BBC seems to be ahead of in this movement having worked with the idea since 2018.

Personal Data Pods
In their first demo, a user created a new data pod on the BBC system and then linked their BBC and Spotify user accounts to pull in some of their media play histories. This data was then processed on the user’s device to create a media profile, which was used to search against BBC News, music, podcasts and programme archive to allow to allow users to find content related to their favourite artists, according to a BBC-blog:

“It’s a simple but effective demonstration of a secure cross-service application. At no time does the BBC get to see the user’s Spotify data, and Spotify does not receive a copy of the users BBC data, as all data processing is done in the app. As well as keeping data safe, it means if you want to move to another service, your data is already under your control, and you don’t need to ask for it.”

Public Value
According to research highlighted in this BBC blog, at least 39 different organisations hold personal data on the average UK citizen, 82% are unsure of what data they hold about them and only 1% reads the terms of conditions.

“We believe a change in the way people can manage their personal data has a broader public value,” says Eleni Sharp.

2500 people have participated in the experiment for now, either through surveys, focus groups or deep dives, according to Sharp. They had to work a lot on the language and tone, as this is very new and also hard to grasp that you actually can get more control of your data. Their focus group has been younger audiences – between 16 and 35, as they are more tech savy, and the BBC would love to get more users from that group.

The work to date has shown the technical feasibility of ethical personalisation. There is still a long way for full adoption as the current ad tech industry rely on extensive collections of user data in one place and under one organisation’s control. However, there are clear signs of a movement away from the current model, and Apple’s anti-tracking features in IOS are paving the way for individual data control.

In the next trial from BBC R&D, the Personal Data Pod service will be available for potentially millions of people, says Sharp.

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