As vice-president of legal at Ancestry.co.uk Ruth Daniels has to keep her eye on privacy and digitisation issues while avoiding international incidents
Social media is big business these days, but as Ancestry.co.uk head of legal Ruth Daniels knows, the concept of online data-sharing brings a bunch of new legal considerations for those businesses operating in that space.
However, unlike many social networking sites that target teenagers, Ancestry typically attracts more mature users – something that makes the data-sharing minefield a little easier to navigate.
“Our members are on the whole a bit older; they’re more cautious, but they’re also more thoughtful about what they want to put online and the way they approach things,” Daniels explains.
Which is not to say that data protection is not an issue. As an online genealogy site Ancestry allows its 1.7 million paying subscribers to upload personal information and search reams of records in a bid to build their family trees. This inevitably involves multiple people adding information to the same tree, and one feature of the site is its connection service, which allows users to network, initially anonymously, but with the option to share information.
While individual data is there for individual users’ eyes only, once they connect with other users and collaborate on family trees some of their information is made public.
“Our position is that, if you put something on the site it’s your information, but if you choose to share it with someone and it goes on somebody else’s family tree, then that’s it on there,” states Daniels.
A lot of family tree-building is made easier by the fact that many of the people users add to their trees will be deceased, meaning their privacy cannot be breached. As a safeguard the company has developed an algorithm that can determine whether a person is still living or not.
Privacy is clearly a priority for Ancestry, then, but overseeing the construction of a searchable database from the plethora of records in existence is also a major part of Daniels’ role.
“Digitising records is the big picture,” she says. “We have within the company a department that focuses on digitising records. We have clever technology that enables records that look pretty damaged to the naked eye to appear fine. We also make records searchable – we’ve invested a lot in that.”
While Ancestry enters into digitisation contracts on a commercial basis, the process also allows the business to play a role in the preservation of documents that are of national historical significance. In addition to holding digitised data from the National Archives, the site also contains a range of military records, passenger lists and church records of births, marriages and deaths.
“We believe in collaborating with other interested parties,” Daniels enthuses. “A lot [of these] are government bodies and they don’t have access to a lot of funds.
“When it comes to records that are in their original form, there’s a risk around what’s going to happen to them over time.
“Digitisation is a huge part of the preservation process, and part of our mission is concerned with the preservation of records.”
Despite this, the company’s role is not controversy-free. With the website now operating in nine countries, including several across Europe plus Australia, Canada, the US and China, Daniels explains that the governments of these countries are not always comfortable with their public historical documents being made available on a paid-for basis.
“In some countries there’s a balance between [us having access and] the government thinking the records should be available for free, but just because we have them it doesn’t mean the government can’t,” she says. “It depends on the records. If it’s the first time records are coming to market there should be a balance that involves us being able to recover our investment.
“In some cases we may be able to enter into exclusive deals – if a document’s a public record then it’s public, but if it’s not public we use different logic.”
France and Germany in particular are at what Daniels describes as the early stages of becoming comfortable with providing content to commercial partners, while in China the company is just beginning to get to grips with the country’s complicated legal structure.
“China has a lot of rules relating to the internet and over there it’s very much about having information that the government’s comfortable with going out to Chinese consumers,” says Daniels. “At the moment we don’t have a pay model in China
and there’s a lot of monitoring and filtering going on there.”
Roots to success
Despite admitting that she needed to be persuaded to pursue a genealogy-related career, Daniels is now hooked, and has so far built a family tree of her own, with 80 members spanning five generations – no mean feat considering her father is Burmese.
And Daniels is far from the only one to have become addicted.
“Genealogy’s gone from being a hobby that involved a few people sitting in darkened rooms to being something that everybody knows about,” she says.
Title:Vice-president of legal
Reporting to:Ancestry.com general counsel and company secretary William Stern
Global turnover (2011):$400m (£252.8m)
Main law firms:Baker & McKenzie, DLA Phillips Fox, Gowlings, Mannheimer
Swartling, Morrison Foerster, Taylor Wessing
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General counsel, Wonga.com
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New technology and innovative product ideas have to be seen in the light of legislation not intended for the online world or the pace of change in the market.
Meanwhile, of course, the UK financial services regulatory landscape remains in a state of flux.
Data, both in terms of protecting our customers and using it to enhance the service we provide, is an essential part of our business.
Complying with the European framework of data protection legislation, while preserving customer satisfaction with the service they provide, will be an ongoing challenge for many online businesses.