Slavery in the Modern Commercial World

June 2, 2011

Slave – a person legally owned by another and having no freedom of action, according to the DeliveryDemon’s dictionary. The slave formed part of the wealth of the master, and was often used to generate more wealth. Supposedly slavery has been outlawed in most areas of the modern world, but is this true, or has it been replaced by a more subtle equivalent?

Suppose a company is sold in its entirety, or decides to sell some or all of its book of business. You, the customer, can be sold as part of that deal irrespective of whether you would choose to deal with the buying company. If you have a long term contract for a service such as utility supply, it is highly unlikely that any such sale will trigger a get-out clause in your contract. But the selling company is making money by selling you.

If your employer is sold, again you have no freedom of action. Some roles may be made redundant, others retained. If you occupy a retained role which is unchanged by the takeover you have no right to redundancy, not even if the new employer is one you might never have chosen to work for. Again the seller makes money by selling you.

The bureaucracy collects data on its citizens. Should you be born, or marry, divorce, or die, it becomes a matter of record and those personal details can be sold. Should you become a company director, your details may be sold. Should you decide to exercise your right to vote, your details will be sold unless you opt out, and that doesn’t provide a 100% guarantee. If you require hospital treatment, the consent form hides a proviso that your details will be passed on to a commercial benchmarking organisation called Dr Foster. Yes, our bureaucracy is selling our personal information.

Try being economically active, and it’s no longer a matter of exchanging currency for goods. The seller will move heaven and earth to acquire as much data as they can about you in order to boost their profits. We have become so used to loyalty cards we no longer think of how these little plastic objects are used to capture our likes and dislikes so that we can be targeted with marketing. Buying car insurance? Try doing that without giving away details of your house insurance. Buy a one-off gift online from Mothercare for a friend’s new baby and you have to set up an account which demands a much wider range of details than are needed for the transaction. Set up an Amazon account and every time you log in your transaction history is used to try and make you buy Amazon’s own products and that of the many organisations which use Amazon as a trading platform. Buy an iPhone and you give Apple a record of your movements.

Organisations tend to justify the commercial extraction of your data by saying it is used to give you a better shopping experience. In the DeliveryDemon’s experience, most people are capable of making their own shopping decisions. And targeted marketing models are usually based on such unsophisticated assumptions that random recommendations may well be as effective as their targeted suggestions. The only exception the DeliveryDemon has noticed is in the case of small specialist organisations whose principals have a great deal in common with their customer base.

So who’s making money out of you? And are they paying you for the value they get from you?