The prices individual consumers pay online could be determined by their Google searches, demographic profile, Facebook ‘likes’ and other personal data, according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA).

The potential for unfair pricing is just one of the issues examined by an international panel of experts at the Competition in the Digital Age conference, held Thursday and Friday at UEA’s Centre for Competition Policy.

Dr Paul Bernal of UEA’s School of Law, will be presenting a talk on ‘Profiling, privacy and pernicious personalisation’, followed by a dozen other discussions on internet privacy, big data, digital competition and more. The conference features experts from around the world and presentations from Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority.

Dr Bernal, a lecturer in information technology, intellectual property and media law, said:

Apple Computer Keyboard“Behavioural advertising – the idea that consumers are presented with products and services they’re more likely to buy, based on a number of factors – is a trade-off of online shopping that is practised without people really understanding it. Indeed, many people don’t even notice it.

“But if, for example, soya milk regularly features in your online shopping basket, is your chosen grocery retailer charging you the same as your neighbour for the same product? Or are you paying less or more than someone across the country who usually sticks to dairy products, but occasionally also buys soya milk?

“Given that you only see your computer screen and the price offered to you, not the prices offered to others, how do you know that the price offered to you is fair?

“If you extrapolate those concerns across your regular shopping list, or to bigger-ticket items, it’s clear there are potentially serious problems with the ways our personal data can be used or misused. And there’s no real system in place – regulatory, legal or otherwise – to address these issues.”

As well as Dr Bernal’s talk on expectations of privacy and potential future problems with personal data online, the conference will feature discussions ranging from:

• Can firms be trusted to manage data, and could the volume and quality of consumer data become a source of market power?

• Issues of deception, consent and vulnerability of data

• The management of big data, privacy and digital fingerprints

• How to regulate creative content and copying in the digital market

• The development of data-driven political campaigning and what it means for democracy and citizen participation

• Evidence that app developers release updates to counteract a drop in downloads

• Data collection and use, and the costs and benefits of engaging with privacy policies

The experts will also examine how these digital issues fit together and the possible implications, both currently and in future. UEA’s Prof John Street, professor of politics, and Dr Franco Mariuzzo, lecturer in economics, are also presenting and the event will open with remarks from Prof Morten Hviid, director of the Centre for Competition Policy.

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