Saturday 20 January 2018

Steve Dempsey: EU should listen to news outlets and backtrack on browser cookie crackdown

'Anyone who has experience driving sign-ups and permissions of any kind knows how difficult it is to move the dial from the default setting.' (stock image)
'Anyone who has experience driving sign-ups and permissions of any kind knows how difficult it is to move the dial from the default setting.' (stock image)
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

European regulators have fallen afoul of that old mantra not to pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel. In fact, they've actually picked a fight with 30 companies that buy ink in bulk.

The 30 companies are publishers that include the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Financial Times, Le Monde and Der Spiegel newspapers. They're irked over proposed changes to online privacy laws and have expended some of their ink on a letter that argues these changes will damage their digital businesses.

"The current ePrivacy proposals will result in the data of European digital citizens being concentrated in the hands of a few global companies, as a result of which digital citizens will become less protected," the letter harrumphs. "It will give those global companies a tighter grip on the personal data of European digital citizens."

No surprises who these global companies are. The letter claims that Google, Apple, Microsoft and Mozilla account for 90pc of all digital activity in Europe. So what's being proposed that has publishers up in arms?

Well, it's all about cookies. These are small files that track users' online activity and allow for the targeting of relevant ads. Currently, users are asked to accept cookies on a site-by-site basis - you've probably seen a pop-up on various sites that tells you the site uses cookies.

Under the European commission's latest plans, consumers won't be bothered about cookies on a site-by-site basis. They'll be asked to make a single choice in their browsers to accept or reject tracking on all websites. After that, it will be up to individual publishers to convince users to get them to re-enable cookies for their sites.

The result, according to publishers is that users will most likely turn off all tracking, leaving publishers hamstrung when it comes to serving ads. This will cede even greater control over online advertising to the big multinational companies that aren't limited to cookies to serve their ads and run their own versions of surveillance capitalism.

But the commission is well aware of the risk. Here's what they said in January: "it may become more difficult for online targeted advertisers to obtain consent if a large proportion of users opt for 'reject third party cookies' settings." And they go on to blithely say website operators can maintain their current business models by asking for consent.

Easier said than done. Anyone who has experience driving sign-ups and permissions of any kind knows how difficult it is to move the dial from the default setting.

The European Commission does however, offer a nuanced approach to privacy settings. "End-users should be offered a set of privacy setting options, ranging from higher (for example, 'never accept cookies') to lower (for example, 'always accept cookies') and intermediate (for example, 'reject third party cookies' or 'only accept first party cookies'). Such privacy settings should be presented in an easily visible and intelligible manner."

But according to the 30 peeved publishers, this three-pronged approach to cookies is at odds with another EU privacy and data initiative; the sweeping general directive on privacy regulations. GDPR, which comes into effect next May. It is designed to give consumers greater control and transparency over their personal data.

"By creating a single global permission within the browser interface, the commission's ePrivacy proposals will make it more difficult to ensure transparency and meaningful user empowerment in practice, and remove any distinction between publishers who place a high value on the trust of their users, and those who do not," the publishers said in their letter.

So why should anyone who isn't a publisher or European bureaucrat care?

Well, if the publishers are correct and their advertising models suddenly become unsustainable, there'll be fewer online outlets capable of investing in journalism and the online distribution of news.

This isn't a problem if you're happy to get your news from Facebook's newsfeed, or if you don't care for media plurality.

But it is a problem if you live in a small English-speaking market, and you like to have more than one online source of news.

Cookies, even though they're often far from transparent in terms of tracking user behaviour, do provide some support to news outlets which need all the help they can get right now.

Perhaps the European regulators would be advised to heed the letter from the 30 publishers and at least propose a staggered approach to cracking down on cookies.

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