October 17, 2017

The Battle Begins

A few weeks ago, in a blog post entitled "The Battle Of The Century, " I wrote about the lobbying battle that is brewing over the EU's proposed ePrivacy Regulation.

If adopted the ePrivacy Regulation, along with the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) will make it much harder for online marketers and media in the European Union to collect personal private information about users without prior consent. In other words, it will make it hard for them to track us all over the web and collect, exploit, and sell the information they are harvesting without our explicit consent or knowledge. 

Last week, another shot in this battle was fired. A consortium of advertising, marketing and media companies sent a misleading and disingenuous letter to the members of the European Parliament attacking one of the core points of the ePrivacy Regulation. I have posted the letter here if you'd like to read it. The lead sentence of the letter reads...

    "ePrivacy Regulation threatens data-driven advertising business model of European press publishers and other online media and services."

Before we talk about what's wrong with this assertion, let's talk about what the letter gets right. The letter claims that most of the stuff we like about the web, including news, is made possible by the revenue publishers get from advertising.

This is true. Publishers could not exist solely on the payments they get from users. They also need income from advertisers. However, the letter then goes on to put forward two deceptive arguments.

First they imply that without "data-driven" advertising the revenue to publishers will dry up. This is nonsense. First of all, all advertising is "data-driven." Advertisers have used data for decades to make media decisions about TV, radio, print and every other advertising medium. If this regulation is enacted they will still use data to make decisions about online advertising.

It is not "data" that will be regulated, it is the means by which certain data is collected - involuntary tracking, or spyware. What they won't be able to do is track us without our permission and use data derived from spying on us.

The second assertion has to do with a publisher's right to block users who won't agree to be tracked. The ePrivacy Regulation states that a publisher is prohibited... 

"...from denying access to their advertising-funded offerings if users do not consent to data collection needed for data-driven advertising."
In other words, publishers will not be allowed to block you from reading the content of their website if you refuse to be tracked. The letter claims...
    "...the ePrivacy Regulation puts into question the ability of publishers and other online services to continue offering a value exchange that affords Europeans access to content and services at little or no cost supported by advertising revenue."
This may not be true at all. As far as I have been able to determine, publishers can still block people who block ads, as they can do now. But they will not be able to block people who refuse to be tracked. The difference is enormous.

Publishers are entitled to some value for their work and efforts. None of us works for nothing, why should publishers? I believe it is a fair exchange for publishers to require users to allow ads in exchange for access to the content or news they publish. It doesn't mean we have to pay attention to the advertising, but we ought to allow it on the page. 

When we agree to be exposed to advertising we know what we are agreeing to. But if we are forced to agree to be tracked we do not know what we are agreeing to. We don't know what personal private information is being collected, how it is going to be used, who is going to have access to it, who it may be sold to, or how it will be protected, if at all.

Agreeing to receiving advertising is impersonal. Agreeing to be tracked is wholly personal. 

I want to repeat that I am not certain that the ePrivacy Regulation will allow publishers to block people who block ads. But I think it should.

Having to agree to be tracked, however, creates an unfair value exchange in which the publisher knows exactly what he is getting but the consumer has no idea what he is giving up.

In summary, for us to get what we enjoy from from the web we must understand that a great deal of the value is supported by advertising. But the advertising industry must understand that their desire to monetize data about us does not supersede our right to privacy.

The online advertising industry does not need to spy on us in order to thrive. Every other advertising medium has done quite well, thank you, without trampling on democratic principles of privacy and security.

Tracking, surveillance marketing, and the current model of ad tech are affronts to the values of free societies. The ePrivacy Regulation is a sound and reasonable reaction to our industry's inability to exercise a mature degree of restraint or self-control.

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