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Privacy For All - Including Chickens

The nexus between privacy concerns and digital domains is fraught with anxieties. Lawmakers everywhere are staking claims to this new territory seeking to protect constituent interests. While market forces appear adrift, the digital captains are steering through clear water.

listening in on the chickenThe European Commission released in January its draft for the e-Privacy Regulation to replace the considerably older Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive. Proposed rules will not only apply, obviously, to telecoms but also services that operate over the internet, everything from Facebook to all those cool messaging apps. It’s all - or mostly - about cookies, confidentiality, traffic data and spam. It will, unless preemptively repealed and replaced, take effect in May 2018.

The proposed new e-privacy rules include a new take on cookies, those special bits of embedded code. Sometimes cookies help manage screen set-up or otherwise customize a website’s display. These are useful. But cookies have evolved in two decades, like everything else.

Cookies are an essential part of the data supply chain now that everyone and everything exists online. The old European “cookie law” required operators of most websites to display a notice something to the effect of “by using this website, you accept cookies.” Most folks simply ignored this and website operators collected more and more data. Advertising people and the publishers who love them charged into AdTech - big data crunching for targeted marketing. It will come as no surprise that abuse, some nefarious, is rampant.

Voters in EU Member States may hold wide differing views on many issues but privacy isn’t one of them. The proposed new e-Privacy Regulation requires, for example, tele-marketers to display an accurate phone number when calling to pitch goods and services and provide easy access to a “do not call” (DNC) registry. Also required will be storing collected data - even by third-parties - within the EU.

Much of the revised rule making involves permissions, soon to be extended to all web-enabled devices. Taking a photo on a smartphone and sending it anywhere by email without permission of the subject could draw a fine. There will be no exemptions for personal use. Yes, that could require permission - maybe several - for sharing that cool holiday photo of the Eiffel Tower. It’s unclear if permission would be required from a chicken being cooked in an internet-enabled microwave oven.

This does not make the advertising people happy. After all, in the digital age what would become of them without cookies and lots of consumer data. The proposed e-Privacy Regulation does allow cookie collected data for audience measurement. Anything more than a simple count would require permission. Those highly efficient, data-rich, algorithm-driven ad trading tools, generally referred to as programmatic media buying, could be endangered.

“It would force advertising and technology companies to leverage media owners direct relationships with their readers and viewers,” noted the recently released preview of the GroupM Interaction 2017 report (February 6) on the digital sphere. “The ePrivacy directive threatens to move the whole digital dynamic away from third-parties. If the proposal is to be translated into law as it stands, ‘walled data gardens’ would be further emboldened and competition could be even more distorted.” Media buyer GroupM, a subsidiary of giant ad holding company WPP, also recommended marketers get ahead of the artificial intelligence (AI) curve to place their brands within the “data story.”

Publishers are also not pleased. “This is absurd,” offered French Union of National Daily Newspapers (SPQN) director Denis Bouchez, quoted by Les Echos (March 23). “We would break the web economy and we would not secure the privacy of anyone, since by logging-in we give much more personal information than with anonymous cookies.” Google and Facebook, he added, would win even more control.

It was back in 2010, when the digital world was younger, that Facebook co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed privacy so last century, no longer the social norm. "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.” Google and Facebook are forecast to take 46.4% of global ad spending - US$106 billion - this year, reported eMarketer (March 21). This isn’t from cat videos and fake news alone; AdTech rules.

The US Senate last week (March 21) voted, unsurprisingly, in a quite different direction. Privacy rules in place to protect customers of internet service providers (ISPs) from undisclosed data collection were blocked, pending further legislation. The big plus for ISPs - see those green eyes watering - could be an end to restrictions on selling all that big data to third parties.

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