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Librarians Are Fighting For Your Privacy. Why Aren’t Media Outlets Or The IAB?

It’s a story that still stands out in my mind. When I was in high-school, one of my history teachers (Mrs. Carter-Edwards was a fantastic teacher. The type of teacher that could really get you passionate about topics), conveyed a story to me about a student who was writing a report on the KKK. It was the 90s and the internet was barely a thing. Students would go down to the library in Cornwall, a small Canadian town that hovers on the US border, to collect as much information as they could on their essay topics. That student, after looking through microfiche and digging through card catalogs, managed to find some information she was looking for, and checked out a couple of books. A couple of days later the RCMP was knocking on Mrs. Carter-Edwards’ office door. They had questions that needed answering. I also had questions. How did the RCMP know what books the student checked out? Clearly there was an invasion of privacy that occurred for them to collect that information. It was the only explanation.

I think about that story a lot these days while compiling Ad Tech Weekly. I was young and naive enough to be shocked back then, but it was a lesson in privacy that’s managed to stick with me.

That’s why when I stumbled across Randall Rothenberg’s op-ed in Business Insider this week, a number of alarm bells started going off in my head. The framing of his arguments were of particular interest to me, considering I’m a bit of a history nerd.

Assault on free media. Check.

Despotic Ruler. Check.

Silencing Voices of Opposition. Check.

News Outlets Censored. Check.

Journalists in Jail. Check.

If you’re into history, you’re probably thinking that I’m outlining the latest episode of Hardcore History by Dan Carlin, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, those keywords appear in the opening paragraph of Rothenberg’s op-ed, which is about the European Union and its ePrivacy regulations. It’s a heck of an article intro.

The article focuses on data privacy regulation in the EU. Cutting out the hyperbole, Rothenberg’s claim is that users don’t have a right to ensure their privacy online, especially when it comes to using services and platforms that they neither own nor control. The service provider has the right to determine what, exactly, they collect and how they use it. Not the user.

The new directive would require publishers to grant everyone access to their digital sites, even to users who block their ads, effectively creating a shoplifting entitlement for consumers of news, social media, email services, or entertainment.

The proposed protection of that data, Rothenberg claims, is akin to:

legalizing turnstile jumping on the subway, or free access to a movie theatre, or the right to steal candy from a candy store

It will, in his own words, “strip European publishers of the right to monetize their content through advertising”.

Rothenberg believe that blocking ads or protecting your privacy on the open-web is the equivalent or shoplifting. Stealing outright. The end result of which is the burden of cost being paid for by consumers up-front through subscription costs, and increased fees.

A couple of things I feel the need to interject with at this point.

  1. Publishers put free content online by choice. Plenty of publishers have moved behind paywalls, or subscriptions models.
  2. Publishers have relied on subscription fees throughout the majority of their history to pay the bulk of their bills. Advertising was always a secondary revenue stream - a supplemental income. By putting content online for free, publishers chose to migrate from subscription models to advertising as a primary avenue for monetizing. No one asked them to do it. They decided scale was more important than guaranteed revenue.
  3. The IAB has fully embraced the RIAA’s marketing slogans. Remember the “You wouldn’t steal a car” campaign? We’re right back there again with this article. See my first point again.

Back To The Main Point.

By the same logic applied to this situation by Rothenberg, we can easily argue that taking someone’s personal data without consent, selling it, merging it with data from other services, and building complete customer profiles in an attempt to turn this data into a revenue stream is not shoplifting but pick-pocketing.

People are installing locks on their digital doors; they’re not breaking into establishments and stealing things. Patrons are visiting a place of business to give them their attention, and while they’re there, publishers aren’t just showing them advertisements. They’re also pick-pocketing their data and selling it on a proverbial black market so they can sell more advertisements. If there was ever an implied contract, it was about viewing advertisements. Not having data harvested, sold, and then used to re-target audiences.

That’s the metaphor here. That’s the reality. No one has ever agreed to give businesses their data. No one’s every viewed it as part of the exchange of goods. It’s been taken, rather clumsily, from their pockets. In broad daily light. While everyone was looking.

Is it any wonder that people are installing locks on their digital doors? That governments are considering building laws to prevent companies from pick-pocketing this data behind their back?

You can’t blame Rothenberg, really. The IAB, under his direction, has built a monetization system that’s held the media industry afloat for the last decade. That’s commendable, no matter how flawed the system has become (and it’s seriously flawed). But, like all the great systems before it, the ground eventually shifts and new paradigms need developing. The IAB stands at a juncture. It can continue to advocate for the status quo or it can take a momentous step towards rebuilding consumer trust. It can build a sustainable ecosystem that works for all three parties in the system. It has to build that new ecosystem if there’s going to be an evolution in media, especially if the IAB plans to stick around.

The general population’s not interested in supporting paradigms that result in the gross misuse of its personal data and the reselling of that data to the highest bidder, marketer, or government — foreign or domestic.

The general public may have entered into an implied contract with publishers. They may have agreed that viewing advertisements on content was the cost of consuming that content. They never, however, agreed that companies had a right to invade their privacy, sync data, and build complete profiles of them so marketers, companies, and governments have better targeted lists.

Advertising and data collection aren’t the same thing.

Is it weird to anyone else that we stand at a time when librarians are pushing back against data collection and arming people with privacy tools, but journalists, news outlets, and media bodies are lobbying governments to relax privacy laws?

Who knows, maybe I’m still as naive as I was when I was 16 years old, standing in Mrs. Carter-Edward’s class, hearing the story of how a Canadian law enforcement agency was deeply-concerned about a student’s research on the KKK. Or, maybe we’ve all lost the plot.

Free media is a major pillar in any democratic state, but when that comes at the cost of personal privacy, I start to wonder…

Who exactly is the despotic ruler we should be concerned about? Companies that strive to protect privacy or those advocating for the relaxation of laws designed to protect citizens?

Written by Joshua Schnell.

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