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A new scheme, mydata, plans to "empower" consumers by giving them access to personal information held by businesses.

Piers Fawkes, PSFK
  • 12 april 2011

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This article titled “Consumers to have access to personal marketing data held by businesses” was written by Mark King, for The Observer on Saturday 9th April 2011 23.06 UTC

Consumers should get digital access to data held on them by companies under a scheme to be announced next week. The data would help people switch products and organisations more easily and save money by being able to monitor, for example, their energy usage.

Consumer minister Ed Davey will announced on Wednesday the formation of “mydata” – a collaboration between the government and more than 20 businesses across the financial services, utilities and telecoms industries – to give people access to their digital data.

The initiative Better Deals: Better Choices aims to encourage collective purchasing, and increase support for vulnerable customers. The government hopes empowered consumers will create competitive markets and public services and feed into its plan for growth.

The government will say the aim of the scheme is to “give citizens a helping hand in the face of tight household budgets and rising world prices”.

“At the moment, it’s possible to access this data legally,” Davey says, “but it’s difficult and time-consuming and it’s often not in an electronic format. We hope this will speed up this process. It represents a real opportunity for companies to say: ‘Look, if we get involved in this early we can really empower our customers.’ The idea is that those who do not get involved become the companies consumers do not want to deal with.”

The coalition will also use its community organisers to encourage groups of local people to develop their collective purchasing power and obtain cheaper goods and services. “A block of flats recently caught fire near me and almost none of the 60 households had insurance because they couldn’t afford it,” Davey says. “How about councils working with insurers to develop low-cost products they can sell in bulk to collective purchasers? That’s a win-win for everybody and would have seen those people insured.”

Online price comparison websites will be able to sign up to a new quality mark if they can demonstrate “clear and transparent” consumer feedback, while the OFT will crack down on fake feedback to help reinforce trust.

The government is also planning to introduce a new system of redress for problems consumers face when purchasing goods or services online, to make it easier and cheaper to get redress. It has asked Citizens Advice and Consumer Focus to conduct a joint review on how to empower “very vulnerable consumers”.

However, the new proposals will not come accompanied by any legislation. Instead, the initiatives will be voluntary and self-regulating, which Davey says allows it to “go further in less time than a more traditional approach”.

He says: “We want to see consumers crunching data for themselves and joining with their community to demand good products at affordable prices.”

However, consumer groups have been quick to point out that without a legal requirement to adopt the proposals the end result could be weak. Christine Farnish, chair of Consumer Focus, says: “This also needs to go hand in hand with making the most effective use of regulation and tackling the wider problems exhibited by consumer markets.”

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