A joint, multidisciplinary initiative between the Institute for Information Law (IViR) and the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR)
University of Amsterdam
Table of Contents
- Overall objective of this article
- Thematic focus and cross-cutting issues
- Research within the three thematic area
“Personalised communication” is a term that captures one of the key developments in present-day digital communication. It is a phenomenon that presents a number of advantages, disadvantages and challenges, which we will examine in this research programme. On the one hand, profiling users and targeting them with customised messages may present a solution to certain challenges created by modern media, such as information overload and ensuing attention scarcity. Through personalised content, search results and applications (apps), consumers’ consumption patterns and profiles can be analysed individually; health information can be targeted to improve certain lifestyle choices and manage diseases; and political information can be adjusted to individual voter profiles. On the other hand, personalised communication can manipulate or bias information which, in the worst case, can deprive people of access to more meaningful or more diverse information. This can have a number of worrying effects or conflict with values such as our right to privacy and freedom of expression. Furthermore, personalised communication offers unprecedented opportunities for unfair stereotyping, discrimination and social sorting.
Personalised communication raises a host of both empirical and normative questions. This University of Amsterdam research programme focuses on investigating the uses and implications of personalised communication and information for individuals, society, and information law and policy. The programme takes a normative-empirical perspective, creating an environment and infrastructure for empirical-normative research, and establishes itself as a central knowledge hub for research in this domain.
This research programme will study and compare personalisation strategies in three thematic areas: media and politics, commerce and health. Each area is characterised by different dynamics and concerns, calling for different policies and normative frameworks. Investigating and comparing these areas will enable us to better understand which aspects are shared and which are unique.
Within and across these different lines of investigation, a number of cross-cutting issues will play a central role. These may be broadly defined, horizontal issues or focal points of research interest across all three areas. The cross-cutting issues will serve as a common thread running through the research programme and facilitate certain synergies, as well as the coherence and comparability of the three thematic areas. They also have an important role in achieving the “meta-objective” of this programme, which is to develop a broader, more inclusive perspective on personalised communication.
As a starting point, we will focus on the following cross-cutting issues:
Persuasiveness: This term refers to the actual impact personalised communication has on users’ behaviour and its potential to influence their decision-making and stimulate engagement. This aspect is important when considering not only the effects but also the regulation of communication, e.g. in the context of provisions concerning unfair commercial practices or the regulation of advertising – political advertising in particular.
Individual and societal acceptability: This programme focuses on identifying the individual and societal parameters governing acceptability of information; defining the relationship between the relative costs and gains of personalised communication for individuals and society; and determining where and how to conceptualise the division between acceptable and unacceptable forms of personalised communication. How should we balance the advantages of more personalised and relevant communication with the need to protect our autonomy, privacy, equal treatment and freedom of choice?
Relationship between personalised communication and achieving central public policy objectives: Personalised communication can both undermine and reinforce societal values and the need to realise critical public policy objectives, such as media diversity, consumer protection, freedom of choice, non-discrimination, privacy and freedom of expression. This cross-cutting issue covers a range of positive aspects including using personalised communication as a means of encouraging people to behave better, as well as certain potentially worrying effects, the impact on the diversity of our choices, levels of engagement with media content or unjustified forms of differentiating users.
Trust, transparency and literacy: Trust, transparency and literacy are important forms of consumer protection. In order to effectively realise transparency and trust, insights are needed into how information should best be communicated and how users can be effectively empowered. This issue also includes the normative question of to what extent transparency can and should play a role in regulating algorithmic profiling and targeting of users.
User rights and effective protection: Personalised communication raises questions about the current legal framework, which is principally a means of communicating commercial, political or health messages en masse. Personalised communication introduces new ways of “micro-managing” the relationship with the user. This issue requires consideration of how to effectively safeguard users’ privacy and protect them from new types of unfair commercial practice, “smart” discrimination and information asymmetries. Is there a need to adopt new policies or rules to protect “profiled consumers”, e.g. in the form of fair media practices or sector-specific data protection and privacy laws?
Impact of technological developments on communication: Personalised communication itself expresses the influence of technological developments on the way media users and providers communicate. Consequently, it is also important to monitor the technological evolution in this sector, how it affects communication patterns and its effects. Possible examples are the migration to the Internet of Things but also the development of “counter measures” such as ad-blockers, “do not profile” statuses and similar solutions.
Bearing these cross-cutting issues in mind, the next section describes some examples of research objectives and questions in the three thematic areas that are of interest to researchers in this programme. Some of the research questions are intentionally broadly defined to enable cross-thematic comparisons and collaboration.
Customising media services and journalistic products to meet our personal preferences is part of an ongoing trend of increasing interactivity and a shift away from the traditional one-to-many model towards more individualised forms of media communication. The transition from public information intermediaries to personalised information services is ongoing and manifests itself in many different forms and to different degrees of intensity. We are only beginning to understand how this will affect the media, users, society and the relationships between them. More insight is also necessary into the implications for how the media and their relationship with users are currently regulated, and what opportunities are presented for media policy, the media and other stakeholders.
Some of the questions that will guide our inquiries in the years to come include: Does more choice in the information environment lead to a poorly integrated, self-centred public sphere, extreme opinions and polarised electorates? Does personalised communication enhance individual knowledge and citizens’ engagement? What are the implications and lessons to be learned for media pluralism policies? And can profiling and targeting be usefully employed to promote active engagement with and diverse exposure to media content?
The media, and elites such as politicians, have already discovered the power of algorithms. Though still a relatively new phenomenon and not yet fully imported into Europe from the United States of America, personalised communication offers unprecedented opportunities in the political domain, and opens up new avenues for engaging with an audience and even influencing the democratic process. Can personalisation be used to steer people towards particular political and ideological choices? Will the existing rules governing ideological and political advertising be extended to protect autonomous choices, independent reporting and opinion forming? Understanding the extent to which this is already happening, or likely to happen, in Europe and beyond, and how it relates to our essentially pre-digital legal framework will be another important thread of inquiry.
While the news media and politicians are only beginning to experiment with the possibilities of big data, algorithms and personalised communication, the latter is already a common business practice in marketing and advertising, both online and increasingly in the Internet of Things.
And yet, we still do not know enough about the actual effects targeted advertising has on the choices people make. How does detailed knowledge about people affect consumption and market competition? What new business models are based on personal data and targeting people individually. How “free” are services purporting to be such in reality? What are the effects of the changing power dynamics in the media resulting from exploiting personal data?
Because the use of personalised communication in advertising is already relatively established, this is an excellent area for studying the broader societal implications, such as whether personalisation can lead to new forms of socially unacceptable inequality, or an unfair balance between the interests of individuals, companies and others. In this research programme, we aim to ask more probing normative questions about the kind of digital society we want to live in. Should we, as a society, accept online shops that demand a different, individually targeted price from each person? What difference does it make if price discrimination concerns the sale of consumer goods (value-based pricing), or risk-based pricing, e.g. interest rates for credit or insurance? Under which circumstances should we tolerate take-it-or-leave it offers, or allow people to exchange personal data for services? How effective is current data protection law, consumer law, unfair commercial practice law and non-discrimination law? Is the strong focus on transparency still justified in view of the growing complicity of digital markets, and how can we ensure that transparency really empowers consumers?
Personalised, patient-centred health services offer significant opportunities for improving our well-being. A particular area of interest will be the increasing role of Mobile Health (“m-health”). In this regard, we will seek to understand how and why people use m-health, and what influences their perception and use of m-health technologies. For instance, are those who are more concerned about privacy also less willing to use apps to monitor their health? Or does our perception not specifically influence our choice to not install or even uninstall health apps? At the same time: should those who do use health apps be concerned about the fact that increasingly more health data is becoming available through quantified self-applications? Is the law equipped to deal with new players who collect health data through such self-applications? When do the welfare gains achieved by personalised health services outweigh the risks involved?
Moreover, we aim to test the effects of personalised health communication. A central question in this regard is: how can the vast amount of quantified self-tracking data be used to “nudge” users to adopt healthier behaviours? Can personalised health communication enhance healthy behaviour? And, are some groups more affected by such personalised communication strategies than others, and if so, what determines the level of effectiveness? Yet what are the ethical and normative implications of this type of nudging?
This research programme brings together a team of researchers from the disciplines of Communication Science and Information Law and different areas of expertise to jointly conduct normative-empirical studies. For each of the three thematic areas, the empirical research will be used to identify and describe the uses and effects of personalised communication through surveys, experiments and data mining studies using Twitter (politics), health platforms (health) and customer tracking (commerce), among other tools. Studying the effects of media and communications in the different research areas will provide the basis for a normative evaluation, as well as critical insights into the existing legal framework: Are the effects of personalised communication in line with the objectives of the rules and policies for each area? If not, what new tools, rights and instruments could be effective in reaching public policy objectives? And what are the practical effects of the existing regulatory framework on innovation and the respective positions of providers and users of personalised services? We aim to collaborate on topical, exciting and challenging questions for all disciplines and generate insights that only multidisciplinary studies can.
A central objective of the programme is to create synergy and to stimulate cutting-edge research at the interface between Communication Science and Information Law. We will also reach out to other experts inside and outside the University of Amsterdam. The key elements of this strategy are:
- close cooperation between the principal investigators and a team of postdoc researchers and PhD candidates to generate peer-reviewed (joint) publications, grant applications, and outreach activities;
- hands-on learning experiences in the interdisciplinary design and execution of programmes, pilots and applications;
- supervision for PhD candidates from both disciplines;
- organisation of regular work groups, brainstorm sessions and clinics with members of the different departments;
- a fellowship programme to attract external talent – renowned academics will be invited to visit Amsterdam to collaborate on multidisciplinary studies, to prepare joint grant applications, and to contribute to a university-wide lecture series;
- a training programme to develop academic talent among young researchers, including postdocs, PhD candidates and Master’s students – this international programme will offer interdisciplinary training on its core themes in workshops, training sessions and a summer school for students of Law, Media and Communications and Information Science.
The research programme will endeavour to create a curiosity-driven, collaborative environment, characterised by the rigorous pursuit of academic excellence. In addition, we are committed to sharing our findings not only with the academic community but also with society at large. Since the programme will generate academic knowledge that is important for a number of actors in society such as governments, regulatory authorities, and NGOs, it will form an excellent “training ground” for valorisation practice. The two primary target audiences for outreach and valorisation are (i) stakeholders from the public and private sectors, and (ii) policy- and lawmakers. Our outreach programme will include the following elements:
- bringing together leading academic experts, influential national and international representatives of media, advertisers and regulators, and citizens through workshops, for example;
- building an international knowledge network through the programme’s website and sharing deliverables through social media in order to increase awareness;
- contributing to media discussions and stimulating the public debate;
- translating key findings into policy papers for non-academic stakeholders;
- informing and guiding media users.