European Privacy Rules Should Not Kill Free Media

Randall Rothenberg, CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, one of our largest digital media industry groups, is on the warpath again. This time he is afraid that a new proposed rule in the GDPR (General Data Privacy Regulation), which takes effect in May of next year, will eventually kill  the ad supported free media ecosystem that has been in place for the entire existence of newspapers.

Buried in pages of amendments to the European Union’s latest privacy proposal, the ePrivacy Regulation, members of the European Parliament recently recommended language that would strip European publishers of the right to monetize their content through advertising, eviscerating the basic business model that has supported journalism for more than 200 years. 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 language specifically says

“No user shall be denied access to any [online service] or functionality, regardless of whether this service is remunerated or not, on grounds that he or she has not given his or her consent […] to the processing of personal information and/or the use of storage capabilities of his or her [device].”

In practice, it means this: The basic functionality of the internet, which is built on data exchanges between a user’s computer and publishers’ servers, can no longer be used for the delivery of advertising unless the consumer agrees to receive the ads – but the publisher must deliver content to that consumer regardless.

Rothenberg refers to this proposed regulation as about to enable behavior akin to shoplifting or turnstile-jumping. Moreover, he says that since 76% of internet media is supported by advertising, much of the world’s free media would inevitably disappear, leaving us essentially without all the freedom of the press that the internet enabled for the past twenty years.

Rothenberg is paid to advocated on behalf of the internet advertising business model, and we all realize that, but here is an exceptionally good point that he makes about mobile advertising and how its demise would affect democratic values:

The impact in the mobile environment, where the majority of mobile applications depend on advertising revenue to survive, would be just as devastating. With few consumers willing and able to pay the additional taxes, the majority of the online content they enjoy today could disappear forever – at exactly the time authoritarian governments around the world are attempting to seize more control of the news and entertainment media.

While some might argue that Rothenberg’s latest rant is overstated, we think  this is a very unusual period in the history of the world’s democracies, and it makes sense to advocate strongly for free, ad-supported media  –as long as it is not overly intrusive and provides value to consumers.  That’s the key point that Rothenberg forgets to make, but is never far from our minds. To earn consumers’ attention, we have to provide fundamentally better advertising. And that, paired with free media, can preserve the array of voices in the digital media landscape that contribute to the preservation of both human rights and democratic values.