For years, internet regulators have tried to put consumers in the driving seat – but what exactly does that mean when you are reading a free news site online?
There are many places you can go on the internet, many of them collecting data on those that visit, making money by selling ad space for companies trying to reach consumers – and news sites often use this system.
For example – customers who went to pet shops might also want dog food. Up pops a dog food advert. So far, so twentieth century! Just better, and with more free content. This all seems simple and straightforward
Some cases could raise privacy concerns, however – the searches for things we’d rather not have tracked: the insolvency accountant, the abortion clinic. Some users are quite shrewd at switching on a VPN to avoid this, but that’s not everyone. Sensitive data could be collected by businesses, who could then be unscrupulous with it.
Just like the rules of the road, there is a role for data network rules which seek to promote responsible data handling online. Driving fast can be fun – but not when you crash. Online, that would take the form of a sort of highway code that identifies what is harmful, and what is fair game.
In this example, the traffic constable would be the UK Information Commissioner’s Office. This body faces a heavy lift. As much as 71% of advertising value is tied up in the ability to tailor content and ads to browsing habits.
This makes sense: the advert for dog food is much more valuable in front of dog lovers. The technology that does this helps support a wide range of free online content – a win-win, especially if you cannot afford paywalls.
Privacy concerns in context
Troublingly, a recent ICO Opinion hints that applying these advert tailoring systems could raise concerns even where they only handle everyday humdrum information. Yes, there is someone in Woking who drives a Volvo and has a Labrador, and you only know that because you did some automated market research – but is this a problem? The Volvo driver might even like this if it means a free newspaper.
Surveys looking at this typically ask people if they would like “more privacy”.
Honestly – who would answer that with a firm “no”?
But surveys rarely ask the more interesting question.
What if there are privacy safeguards, like the “right to be forgotten” by breaking the link between your browser and the marketing profile?
What if names are never used; only random session names (BrowserXYZ on iPhone123)?
Or if there are rights to clarity and for special care to be taken around sensitive information?
If all of the above were in place – would you mind seeing a few tailored adverts in exchange for free content?
The thing is, existing systems don’t always allow the same level of clarity or reset. It will be important not to engage in friendly fire against the new systems that do allow this when going out protecting user privacy.
In an online world of plenty it is easy to forget that someone has to pay for content. Working out how to put people in the driving seat is a great aim, and there is no doubt that everyone wants the ability to delete the history in the sat nav as to trips they perhaps shouldn’t have made.
What people certainly don’t want is to have their keys taken away, or empty petrol stations. Let’s hope that 2022 does not start off with already-stretched newspapers losing 71% of their revenue. That would be an own goal when all that is needed is a speed limit.
Stephen Dnes is a competition lawyer with Preiskel & Co LLP in London and Associate Professor of Law at Northeastern University. He is active in cases on behalf of advertising and publishing companies.
Header image: John Schnobrich on Unsplash (Licensed for use under the Unsplash License)