California rang in the new year with not just fireworks but a sweeping data privacy law. Not long after, Google made a monumental change to its browser, killing cookies that stealthily vacuum up our data. Is data privacy going to be flexing its muscle in 2020?
Some are already asking if this is going to be the year the US introduces its answer to Europe’s GDPR, a sweeping set of rules designed to protect consumer privacy. If so, this would usher in a new regulatory age and set a different digital tone for the coming decade.
As we look back at the evolution of privacy over the last decade, what is clear is that data protection needs to evolve with the times. The introduction of GDPR in 2018 was important but its impact can be debated. Yes, it has done a lot of good, especially in creating greater public awareness around the issue. It has forced companies to become more transparent and accountable over their handling of user data.
But what has that greater awareness and transparency led to?
For one thing, we learnt that “informed consent” doesn’t mean much in an age of information overload. One study estimates that reading all the terms and conditions in the privacy policies you’re shown would consume 244 hours per year.
Many firms have pledged to do better but such verbal commitments can be compared to New Year’s resolutions. While they may be guided by well-meaning intentions, it is much easier to eat a plate of cookies than a plate of vegetables, especially if they are third-party cookies…
So what is the future of data privacy in 2020, and beyond?
Well, we will make one bold prediction: Targeted advertising is on its way out. It might not happen this year, but it is surely dying a slow death.
After all, stopping microtargeting would solve many of the problems that have dominated the public conversation over the last few years: fake news, political manipulation, data mining practices, surveillance capitalism, etc.
Currently, US regulators are being pushed to study ads that target children and investigate practices for collecting online data about them. Up until just recently, advertisers on Instagram could target teenage girls under the age of 18 to promote dubious weight loss products. Even Microsoft founder Bill Gates has said that societal issues have demonstrated an increasing need to ban this type of microtargeting.
It has never been more urgent for us to get rid of this toxic practice. Insidious forces are now employing the same ad targeting that has been used by brands to grow their customer base and sell products. Except now, the stakes are a lot higher because it’s not just about persuading someone to buy a pair of jeans. It is being used to erode democracy and polarize society, one optimized click at a time.
Ignore all the panaceas that will inevitably be brought up – more safeguards that can be imposed, more people hired to moderate content, etc. These will only be stopgap solutions that treat the symptom rather than the root of the cause.
For the tech giants controlling these platforms, it’s naturally not in their interest to put their biggest source of revenue at risk. As for regulation, it will always be a slow and incremental process – GDPR had been heatedly discussed by lawmakers for years before it finally came into effect. And there are still gaps and loopholes in GDPR being exploited.
As such, brands themselves should be proactive and channel their energy into initiatives that are less privacy-intrusive. The ad tech industry is already acknowledging the writing on the wall. In fact, Gartner forecast that 80% of marketers will abandon personalization efforts by 2025 due to lack of ROI, the perils of customer data management or both.
Of course, no one likes to be the first to take a moral stance that may not be good for business. The industry lament seems to be: “If I’m not doing targeted ads and my competitors are, then I’m losing out.” Yet it’s unclear how effective personalized ads really are. When The New York Times scrapped behavioral targeting in Europe, a move prompted by GDPR, its digital ad revenue continued to grow. Instead, it focused on contextual and geographical targeting. That’s a way of serving relevant ads without being creepy or intrusive.
As a company in the emerging alternative data industry, we help our partners monetize data with strictly zero personal information – which is why we know it’s possible. We’re also in the business of uncovering the hidden value in data others might overlook or ignore.
While data protection has long been a matter of concern confined to a specific group of stakeholders within a company, like IT, it is now a critical issue that impacts nearly every level of an enterprise – from the marketing department to the CEO.
This is why we call upon all organizations to not just put privacy first, but to truly embed it at the heart of their business. Embracing privacy doesn’t mean having less data to work with. Through compliance, collaboration and creative technology, firms can explore new ways of harnessing non-personal data to unlock value for themselves and their customers. And that’s the ultimate win-win scenario.