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Last year was a landmark for online privacy in many ways, with something of a consensus emerging that consumers deserve protection from the companies that sell their attention and behavior for profit.
The debate now is largely around how to regulate platforms, not whether it needs to happen.
The consensus among key legislators acknowledges that privacy is not just of benefit to individuals but can be likened to public health; a level of protection afforded to each of us helps inoculate democratic societies from manipulation by vested and vicious interests.
The fact that human rights are being systematically abused at population-scale because of the pervasive profiling of Internet users — a surveillance business that’s dominated in the West by tech giants Facebook and Google, and the adtech and data broker industry which works to feed them — was the subject of an Amnesty International report in November 2019 that urges legislators to take a human rights-based approach to setting rules for Internet companies.
“It is now evident that the era of self-regulation in the tech sector is coming to an end,” the charity predicted.
The dystopian outgrowth of surveillance capitalism was certainly in awful evidence in 2019, with elections around the world attacked at cheap scale by malicious propaganda that relies on adtech platforms’ targeting tools to hijack and skew public debate, while the chaos agents themselves are shielded from democratic view.
Platform algorithms are also still encouraging Internet eyeballs towards polarized and extremist views by feeding a radicalized, data-driven diet that panders to prejudices in the name of maintaining engagement — despite plenty of raised voices calling out the programmed antisocial behavior. So what tweaks there have been still look like fiddling round the edges of an existential problem.
Worse still, vulnerable groups remain at the mercy of online hate speech which platforms not only can’t (or won’t) weed out, but whose algorithms often seem to deliberately choose to amplify — the technology itself being complicit in whipping up violence against minorities. It’s social division as a profit-turning service.
The outrage-loving tilt of these attention-hogging adtech giants has also continued directly influencing political campaigning in the West this year — with cynical attempts to steal votes by shamelessly platforming and amplifying misinformation.
From the Trump tweet-bomb we now see full-blown digital disops underpinning entire election campaigns, such as the UK Conservative Party’s strategy in the 2019 winter General Election, which featured doctored videos seeded to social media and keyword targeted attack ads pointing to outright online fakes in a bid to hack voters’ opinions.
Political microtargeting divides the electorate as a strategy to conquer the poll. The problem is it’s inherently anti-democratic.
No wonder, then, that repeat calls to beef up digital campaigning rules and properly protect voters’ data have so far fallen on deaf ears. The political parties all have their hands in the voter data cookie-jar. Yet it’s elected politicians whom we rely upon to update the law. This remains a grave problem for democracies going into 2020 — and a looming U.S. presidential election.
So it’s been a year when, even with rising awareness of the societal cost of letting platforms suck up everyone’s data and repurpose it to sell population-scale manipulation, not much has actually changed. Certainly not enough.
Yet looking ahead there are signs the writing is on the wall for the ‘data industrial complex’ — or at least that change is coming. Privacy can make a comeback.
Adtech under attack
Developments in late 2019 such as Twitter banning all political ads and Google shrinking how political advertisers can microtarget Internet users are notable steps — even as they don’t go far enough.
But it’s also a relatively short hop from banning microtargeting sometimes to banning profiling for ad targeting entirely.
Alternative online ad models (contextual targeting) are proven and profitable — just ask search engine DuckDuckGo. While the ad industry gospel that only behavioral targeting will do now has academic critics who suggest it offer far less uplift than claimed, even as — in Europe — scores of data protection complaints underline the high individual cost of maintaining the status quo.
Startups are also innovating in the pro-privacy adtech space (see, for example, the Brave browser).
Changing the system — turning the adtech tanker — will take huge effort, but there is a growing opportunity for just such systemic change.
This year, it might be too much to hope for regulators get their act together enough to outlaw consent-less profiling of Internet users entirely. But it may be that those who have sought to proclaim ‘privacy is dead’ will find their unchecked data gathering facing death by a thousand regulatory cuts.
Or, tech giants like Facebook and Google may simple outrun the regulators by reengineering their platforms to cloak vast personal data empires with end-to-end encryption, making it harder for outsiders to regulate them, even as they retain enough of a fix on the metadata to stay in the surveillance business. Fixing that would likely require much more radical regulatory intervention.
European regulators are, whether they like it or not, in this race and under major pressure to enforce the bloc’s existing data protection framework. It seems likely to ding some current-gen digital tracking and targeting practices. And depending on how key decisions on a number of strategic GDPR complaints go, 2020 could see an unpicking — great or otherwise — of components of adtech’s dysfunctional ‘norm’.
Among the technologies under investigation in the region is real-time bidding; a system that powers a large chunk of programmatic digital advertising.
The complaint here is it breaches the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) because it’s inherently insecure to broadcast granular personal data to scores of entities involved in the bidding chain.
A recent event held by the UK’s data watchdog confirmed plenty of troubling findings. Google responded by removing some information from bid requests — though critics say it does not go far enough. Nothing short of removing personal data entirely will do in their view, which sums to ads that are contextually (not micro)targeted.
Powers that EU data protection watchdogs have at their disposal to deal with violations include not just big fines but data processing orders — which means corrective relief could be coming to take chunks out of data-dependent business models.
As noted above, the adtech industry has already been put on watch this year over current practices, even as it was given a generous half-year grace period to adapt.
In the event it seems likely that turning the ship will take longer. But the message is clear: change is coming. The UK watchdog is due to publish another report in 2020, based on its review of the sector. Expect that to further dial up the pressure on adtech.
Web browsers have also been doing their bit by baking in more tracker blocking by default. And this summer Marketing Land proclaimed the third party cookie dead — asking what’s next?
Alternatives and workarounds will and are springing up (such as stuffing more in via first party cookies). But the notion of tracking by background default is under attack if not quite yet coming unstuck.
Ireland’s DPC is also progressing on a formal investigation of Google’s online Ad Exchange. Further real-time bidding complaints have been lodged across the EU too. This is an issue that won’t be going away soon, however much the adtech industry might wish it.
Year of the GDPR banhammer?
2020 is the year that privacy advocates are really hoping that Europe will bring down the hammer of regulatory enforcement. Thousands of complaints have been filed since the GDPR came into force but precious few decisions have been handed down. Next year looks set to be decisive — even potentially make or break for the data protection regime.