Release customer data willingly or we'll make you do it, UK warns firms (again)

Having consulted on the matter, the government looks to set to press ahead with legislative plans that could force companies to reveal data they hold on customers to those customers, if they ask for it.
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

The British government has reiterated its threat to force companies to tell customers what data it holds on them.

A year ago, the government launched a voluntary scheme called Midata, with member firms promising to reveal data about customers to those customers in a machine-readable format, if they asked for it. An example might be an energy supplier's customer wanting to know about their usage in detail, so they can better evaluate the potential benefits of competing deals.

However, the idea has not really taken off. The government launched a consultation in August, warning that it was considering legislation to give consumers the right to remand their personal transaction data. The results of that consultation are now in, and the government is still threatening to legislate.

"Many businesses reap huge commercial benefits from the information they gather from consumers' daily spending patterns. Why shouldn't consumers also benefit from this by having access to their own data to enable them to make better choices?" consumer affairs minister Jo Swinson asked in a statement on Saturday.

The first sectors to be targeted would be banks, mobile operators and energy suppliers, although the new regulation-making powers, likely to come into effect in the spring of 2014, would allow extensions to other industries as well.

"It's great when your energy provider tells you how much gas or electricity you're using at any point in the year or when phone companies tell you which one of their tariffs suits you best," Swinson said. "But it's even better when consumers can use that information to get better value for money deals or adjust their lifestyles."

According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the widespread release of data would allow new applications for comparing prices or even, in the case of food consumption, relative health benefits.

The department is also suggesting that electricity companies might print QR codes on their bills, so customers could easily view their consumption patterns.

The organisations that have already signed up to the Midata initiative include Google — which has always been quite good about giving customers access to their own data — as well as Lloyds, RBS, MasterCard, British Gas, EDF Energy and Three.

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