Peter Wallace, Managing Director EMEA at GumGum, explains why the privacy maelstrom has been hijacked by commercial ambition – with user-centricity paying the price.
The conversation around privacy has been bubbling for a number of years but is now really starting to boil over. Privacy was brought to the forefront by GDPR, EU-led legislation that came into force over 3 years ago. Since then, we’ve seen other markets follow suit – with the likes of CPRA in California becoming law. Above all, these changes were led by governments, putting the user first and giving them control of how their data is being used.
Fast forward to 2021, the conversation around privacy is increasingly being led by commercial entities. With the death of the cookie approaching, GAFA has been making sweeping changes to the way their infrastructure works, with significant ramifications for the digital supply chain. These changes have always been issued under the guise of being privacy and user-centric approach, however, they are also typically engineered in a way that has significant commercial benefits.
Not only is this entrenching the monopoly of these major power brokers, but they’re also creating ruptures between them; with Facebook and Apple at loggerheads over personalized advertising, and Amazon stealthily blocking Google’s FLoC. What started out as a rallying call for technology that prioritized audience privacy has turned into a riotous free-for-all where big tech tussles for dominance and consumer voices are left out to dry.
The walled gardens are jumping on the bandwagon of privacy, but steering it entirely in their own beneficial direction; a route that will always put commercial opportunity over consumer need. Facebook may talk about “a privacy-focused vision”; Apple may be “leading the pack” in the privacy war. But in the very same breath, this level of consumer protection appears to be at risk, with Whatsapp sharing its user data with Facebook, and Apple accused of sharing consumer data with the Chinese government.
All is not lost, however. The wheelback to a consumer perspective starts where the privacy battle itself began: with governments stepping in. Regulatory bodies should continue to be vocal in enforcing protective measures; especially where the interpretation of these hangs in the balance with new, suspiciously self-serving data privacy solutions from GAFA.
There is a natural overlap with the question of antitrust here. Where independent players in the ad tech ecosystem are protected, consumers will also come first – since a free and fair internet means more choice for everyone. With the CMA scrutinizing Facebook and Google over their use of data in a new age of privacy, this pushback has already begun; but it needs to retain momentum. Unless independent technologies, whether that’s universal IDs, contextual targeting or beyond, are allowed to operate within and outside the confines of GAFA’s walled gardens, consumer interests will always take a backseat.
Google’s decision last week to postpone its planned cookie ban until 2023 is a positive sign that regulators can encourage a more conciliatory approach from the tech giants. It gives the digital advertising sector more time to work together and develop cookieless solutions. The creation of a truly privacy-first internet will ultimately have to be led by regulators to avoid corporations creating self-serving solutions and, instead, working collaboratively based on shared interests and user-first principles.
This leads us to a larger, more urgent issue, which is how to patrol the boundaries of a free, competitive and open web in the long term. This huge challenge implicates companies across the digital supply chain, from advertisers to agencies and publishers. If we want to target solutions that put the user community first, we need to act as a community: putting collaboration over competition for the sake of the greater good.
GAFA needs to stop butting heads and work with each other – as well as with the wider ad industry – in finding new opportunities that can weigh the balance of privacy versus profit concerns. At the same time, the ad world needs to embrace alternative ways of targeting audiences that don’t require user data or ID-based solutions. Contextual advertising, for example, targets users based on the content they are viewing rather than user data and is immune to the GAFA-led platform updates which can be so disruptive for the sector. Proven to be more effective in engaging online audiences, contextual is the one unifying targeting methodology that can run across all devices and platforms.
These represent just part of the puzzle, however: the bigger pieces lie in transparency and cohesion. The conversation around online privacy stands at a turning point right now. If we allow the GAFA storm to continue, users risk being increasingly sidelined. Instead, digital operators across the ecosystem should walk the walk-in protecting global audiences.
It is possible to create an online economy that offsets inherent privacy with ad growth; that creates room for both consumers and media companies of all sizes to be heard. But this can only happen if we resist the kind of commercial provocation led by the GAFA quadropoly, and start working collectively to give users the prominence they deserve.