YouGov, the London-listed polling and market research company, has diversified its offering in recent months, in a (successful) effort to generate more revenues. It is now focusing less on traditional market research activities, and more on “real-time data analytics” — ie data that is served up in some kind of intelligible and useful format as soon as it is generated. 

Over at FT sister publication the Investors Chronicle recently, Alex Hamer spoke to YouGov chief executive Stephan Shakespeare about this strategy shift, and specifically about the company’s new “YouGov Direct” division. This, the company says, “empowers consumers with greater control of their data and creates the opportunity for them to obtain fair value from its use”.

Or, to put it another way, here’s Shakespeare (from Alex’s piece):

It lets you do things that would be creepy, if it wasn’t for the fact that actually the person selling it is wanting to do that.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well as you’d expect, like all great new things, YouGov Direct also happens to be blockchain-flavoured. “But Y tho?” we hear you ask, in exasperated unison.

From the company’s website:

We used blockchain technology to support YouGov Direct because it helps to tackle many of the challenges we see in the audience data market. It turns permission (or consent) into a verifiable audit trail of transactions that can be referenced by businesses to provide GDPR assurance and creates complete transparency of data use from data subject (consumer) to data user (advertiser).

But, we’re confused. We thought the whole point of a blockchain was immutability? How could data held in perpetuity on a decentralised blockchain possibly be GDPR-compliant, given that one of the key elements of the new(ish) EU regulation is the right to be forgotten? (Indeed, we have written about this precise problem before.) 

Alex didn’t publish any of the stuff Shakespeare said about the blockchain element of YouGov Direct (he didn’t say tell us this, but we think it might have been because it didn’t make much sense), though he did give us his notes. On the GDPR stuff, Shakespeare said: 

[YouGov Direct] embraces GDPR, because it doesn’t just say ‘hey, using this data is compliant’, it says ‘this has actually transferred control of the data to the panellists’. They put the data in, they say that it’s available to be bought, when it’s used to target them and then they’re paid for the use of the data, and then that they get a receipt for the use of it, so they can see exactly who has used the data for what, and 999 times out of 1,000 they’re not going to be interested in that, but the point is it’s all recorded, it’s all visible all the time, which means everybody is accountable, and if something were to go wrong, you could see where it went wrong, why it went wrong, who did it, and so on.

But that doesn’t really add up. What about if someone doesn’t just want a receipt, and instead actually wants their data removed? How can it be once it’s on an immutable dream-ledger? Also, if you can see who has used your data, and for what, isn’t that someone else’s data? And also what about the bit about things going wrong? The only point of knowing something had gone wrong would be if you could do something about it, but surely you couldn’t, once it’s on a blockchain? 

Well maybe you could, because the YouGov Direct blockchain doesn’t appear to really be a blockchain. Alex put this to Shakespeare, saying that what he was in fact describing was an internal company system rather than a distributed ledger, at which point he was told (emphasis ours): 

It is a blockchain; it’s not a public blockchain. As we expand this, we’re going to do something some of us have done, which is to have three or five hosts that are like academic institutions or whatever that are trusted. If you actually distribute it to hundreds or thousands, it becomes highly inefficient. As you know there are still unsolved problems with bitcoin and so on. How you make it efficient as a system, it’s got a lot of friction in it, this is frictionless pretty much, and you get all the advantages, after all we’re not dealing with money, this isn’t a money system. What you want to do is know that this can’t be tampered with, and if you have five hosts for the data, and they’re all trusted institutions you’re going to trust it. 

All the advantages? The whole point of a blockchain is the idea that by having a distributed network of computers processing and recording data, it can’t be tampered with. The point is to “disintermediate trust”, to use the jargon. But YouGov aren’t doing that; in fact they’re doing the opposite — having “three or five hosts that are like academic institutions or whatever that are trusted”.

Academic institutions (“or whatever”) aren’t inherently more trustworthy than any other establishment (in fact sometimes, quite the opposite). Also, if you’re just going to use a few academic institutions to provide the “trust” element for your empowerment-via-selling-yourself platform, why do you need to do so via a blockchain? If these institutions can be trusted, there’s no need for a blockchain — the blockchain bit is meant to obviate the need for trust. If they can’t be trusted, then having them in control of the whole database seems like a bad idea. 

None of this makes any sense.

Related links:
Blockchain insiders tell us why we don’t need blockchain — FT Alphaville
Immutable ledgers meet European data protection — FT Alphaville 
YouGov benefits from real-time data — Investors Chronicle

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