By Diego Naranjo
Diego Naranjo is a qualified lawyer and co-founder of the Andalusian human rights organisation Grupo 17 de Marzo. During the last six years, Diego has been specialising on human rights law. He owns a Master’s degree in human rights from the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation in Venice.
Diego joined EDRi in October 2014 where he works as Senior Policy Advisor. He advocates for the protection of citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms online in the fields of data protection, surveillance and copyright. In the past, Diego gained experience in the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) and the Free Software Foundation Europe. Previously to all that he worked as a lawyer in Spain. He is part of the expert group on digital rights of the Spanish Ministry of Energy, Tourism and Digital Agenda.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) Europe, one of the loudest enemies of the e-Privacy Regulation, is the association of online tracking and adverting companies. On 7 September, IAB Europe published a report titled: “Europe Online: An experience driven by advertising”.
In the report, some of the key issues are clearly displayed, but some are hidden behind the large misleading headlines and graphics. The IAB Europe Report says:
1) “In the online world most users’ experience is predominantly free.”
The report conveys the message that online users are using services without paying for the services in cash. This is true in many cases. However, it cleverly creates a false dichotomy that the only alternative to massive, untransparent profiling and tracking is unspecified costs for users.
It is clear that they are unknowingly “paying” with their data, without any clarity about the financial value or security cost of handing over their data nor, indeed, the actual cost of providing the “free” services. In the online world, companies offering “free” services live from insights into how to manipulate their users. Often the “free” websites have no idea about (nor control over) where their visitors’ data goes, what other data it is merged with, and what uses that data are put to.
To provide the best services for their actual customers (the companies paying to place advertisements or cookies), advertisers sometimes get access to the content of your emails, track your physical movements, analyse your browsing habits, or listen to the interactions of your children with their toys.
Even though the way online tracking happens is not immediately obvious, the results of the Eurobarometer on e-Privacy show clearly what matters to people: 92% of EU citizens said that it is very important that the personal information (such as their pictures, contact lists, etc.) on their computer, smartphone, tablet or any other device is only accessed with their permission. The same percentage highlighted the importance of protecting their online communications (e-mails and online instant messaging).
2) “Nine in ten online users (92%) would stop accessing their most-used free news, content or service site or app if it switched to paid access only.”
Here again, a false dichotomy was presented to users, to generate the response requested by IAB. The approach misleads readers by implying that no innovation is possible, no solutions other than the status quo exist. However, it is not true that different business models cannot be created – we do not have to rely on a model that has created a quasi-duopoly for Google and Facebook. For example, there are successful micropayment models for quality news sources. Also, innovation around contextual advertising is increasingly successful to achieve its goals, without engaging in invasive profiling and tracking of individuals. Such innovation has the capacity to generate a level playing field, as an alternative to the current duopoly stranglehold of the online advertising market.
The statement closes the door to alternative ways of payment. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that a majority of EU citizens think it is “unacceptable to have their online activities monitored in exchange for unrestricted access to a certain website (64%) or to pay in order not to be monitored when using a website (74%)”, as shown by the Eurobarometer.
3) “Most users are either positive or neutral about online advertising.”
Another misrepresentation. Online advertising is online advertising. Advertising based on tracking and profiling is advertising based on tracking and profiling. Asking about one and suggesting that the answer is about the other is blatantly misleading. This is demonstrated when report admits that 58% of users are not happy with their browsing data being shared as the basis for advertising. Later on in its “research”, the IAB admits that 80% would not like to see their data shared with third parties for advertising purposes.
The use of ad-blockers increased up to 30% in 2016. Now 11% of internet users worldwide are using one. And yet the online advertising industry still refuses to acknowledge that innovation is even possible.
4) “Four in ten users (42%) are happy with their browsing data being shared as the basis for advertising, stating they don’t mind seeing personalised advertising based on their browsing data in exchange for free news, content or services.”
This suggests that 58% of online users do not feel comfortable with their browsing being analysed in htis way.
The Eurobarometer report on the e-Privacy Regulation says that six in ten respondents (60%) have already changed the privacy settings on their internet browser, for example, to delete browsing history or cookies. It also shows that 40% of respondents avoid certain websites because they are worried their online activities are monitored, and that 71% of them say it is unacceptable for companies to share information about them without their permission, even if it helps companies provide new services they may like.
Yet another false dichotomy: it has been done badly so the only option is not to do it at all. The way that the e-Privacy Directive was implemented led to the “cookie” pop-up notices that users often see. These cookie notices are sometimes intrustive, almost always demonstrably factually incorrect and therefore inefficient.However, there is no reason to believe that there is therefore no other – more efficient and informative – way to protect citizens’ privacy.
The study conducted for the IAB report gave respondents two options: that every app asks every time for consent for the use of their data, or that the apps only show how their data is being used, without asking for their consent. Obviously, most of the respondents chose the lesser of two evils. In reality, users want services to work differently: According to Eurobarometer, eight in ten (82%) said that it is important that tools for monitoring their activities online (such as cookies) can only be used with their permission, and 56% stated that this is very important to them.
The businesses that listen to consumers and hear their concerns about current tracking based models will have an advantage. They will understand the importance of earning the trust of their clients – an essential element of running a successful business – and develop towards less privacy intrusive business models. They will, as long as untransparent, trust-eroding practices are restricted by law – and this is exactly what the IAB “research” is designed to prevent.
This piece originally appeared on the European Digital Rights (EDRi) website.