An alliance of news publishers has called on European regulators to rethink proposed changes to online privacy laws, arguing that they will potentially kill their digital businesses and give Google, Apple and Facebook too much control of advertising and personal data.
More than two dozen leading publishers – including the Financial Times, Guardian, Le Monde, Spiegel, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Les Echoes – have signed a letter to the European parliament, which is deliberating proposals to tighten up how data is gathered and used by web companies.
The publishers argue that new regulations relating to “cookies” – small files that remember users’ digital habits therefore allowing the targeting of relevant ads – could cut off their ability to build digital revenue.
Currently, when users visit an individual website or app they are asked if they will consent to a cookietracking them. Under the European commission’s plans, consumers will in the future instead be asked to make a single choice to accept, or reject, cookies from all websites and apps only on one single occasion on their phone or browser.
Publishers argue that creating a single “switch” will most likely result in consumers taking the simplest route of opting out of all cookies, leaving them with scant information to support their targeted advertising models.
In turn, this would leave the few digital giants used by most consumers to access the web, and those like Facebook that have their own giant data mining capability, in control.
“Given that 90% of [digital] usage across Europe is concentrated in the hands of just four companies: Google, Apple, Microsoft and Mozilla, this [proposal]... has the potential to exacerbate the asymmetry of power between individual publishers and these global digital gateways,” the letter says.
“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. It will give those global companies a tighter grip on the personal data of European digital citizens.”
Under the proposals, publishers would be allowed to lobby consumers to go into their settings and unblock individual sites and “white list” them, but news organisations believe that in practice this would prove to be an extremely difficult task.
The proposal has been compared to the ad-blocking battle in which publishers ask the increasing number of those who use the software to turn it off, or add their businesses to a white list, explaining how advertising is essential income for many digital news businesses.
The proposals are likely to further exacerbate the huge issue publishers already face as Google and Facebook sweep up as much as 90% of all new digital display advertising.
“The practice of serving relevant advertising to readers is now an established norm in the advertising industry, and is essential to ensure that publishers can compete with Google and Facebook who already control 20% of total global advertising spend,” the letter says.
“If as a result of these proposals news publishers were unable to serve relevant advertising to our readers, this would reduce our ability to compete with the capabilities of dominant digital platforms for digital advertising revenues, ultimately undermining our ability to invest in high quality journalism across Europe,” the letter says.
In recent months, Google, which owns YouTube, and Facebook have faced a barrage of criticism for allowing ads to run next to inappropriate content such as extremist videos.
The companies have also faced a number of issues that have hurt their previously unquestioned ability to accurately target ads, such as brands being charged for ads viewed by “bots”, computer programmes mimicking an internet user, and Facebook admitting to a number of measurement errors.
“The Commission’s ePrivacy proposals will make it more difficult to ensure transparency... and remove any distinction between publishers who place a high value on trust of their users, and those who do not,” the publishers’ letter says.
However, the bad press has so far failed to dent their popularity with advertisers with Google and Facebook enjoying a near duopoly of control of the £11bn UK digital advertising market.
Publishers say that they support the overall objective of the draft “ePrivacy” regulation, which they say has the “potential to clean up the digital economy”, but they need to compete on a fair playing field.
“Citizens are rightly concerned about the use of their personal data by third-party companies of whom they have never heard, and have no idea about the role that they play in their digital lives online,” the letter says. “[But] the commission’s proposals threaten to prevent news organisations from delivering basic functionality such as the marketing of products and services, the tailoring of news products to the needs and desires of news consumers, and relevant and acceptable advertising.”
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