Euro-regulation threatens internet model as we know it

Elliott Haworth
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Few kids today will ever experience hovering in the local newsagents, browsing magazines before scarpering after an angry voice screeches that “this isn’t a bloody library!” from behind the counter.

What they may experience, however, is the digital equivalent of walking into a shop, picking up as many magazines as they want, and leaving, without castigation nor reprimand. Today, the European Commission is stood behind the counter, seemingly more than happy for you to take as you please without paying.

There’s a whole raft of major regulatory changes from the bloc next year, touching on every industry bar none. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is the one that, six months from implementation, firms finally seem to be getting to grips with – we hope.

The ePrivacy Regulation is GDPR’s older half-sibling. It’s an update to the so-called cookie law – implemented as the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2011 on these shores.

To recap, advertisers and publishers drop cookies to collect information about user preferences and browsing habits which are used to serve ads. It’s a cornerstone of – and driving force behind – the success of the UK’s dominant digital advertising sector, funding countless businesses across endless sectors.

The update, with its ambitious implementation date of May 2018, aims to to align the cookie law with the GDPR, stipulating, among other things, that users must consent to sharing their personal information by choosing privacy settings via browsers or other software.

As in the GDPR, it’s a move away from the current mode of “publisher site notices,” whereby users consent to cookies being dropped through clicking “OK” to a pop up banner, or consent is assumed by continued use of the site. Under the new regime, publishers can ask users to reconsider their choice not to consent, but users are under no obligation to give up their information.

Before last month, these were just proposals. Then, the European Parliament voted 318 to 280 to commence final negotiations on the wording, presently in mediation. An added provision prevents websites from denying users access if they refuse to share their information, “regardless of whether this service is remunerated or not”.

People can walk into the shop, you can ask them to pay, but if they want to take the magazines, the sweets and the cash register, you cannot stop them.

Further, the embedded browser privacy settings, which will replace publisher site notices, would, by default, be set to the most “privacy friendly” option.

The final version of the directive is still being lobbied before it is enacted next year. But it must be considered that cutting off ad revenues by default is a fundamental threat to how the internet works. Collecting this data is a value exchange. For “free” access to a site – whether Facebook or – users “pay” by giving up data, to then be served ads. Everything from news to video content, tailored offers and much more, relies on that consent.

Of course publishers should have to demonstrate value in exchanging data for access to their content. But as a minimum, publishers should also have the ability to deny access if someone refuses to pay, as is the case with adblockers and paywalls.

Consumer privacy concerns are not to be dismissed, but a balance must be struck with industry longevity. Most of the internet is funded by advertising. The model we have isn’t ideal, but presently, that’s the way it is. Worse is forcing publishers to give their content away for free. Its nothing short of anti-competitive scuppering. This isn’t a bloody library.

Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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