The great hypocrisy of online privacy


Six months after the adoption of the new GDPR consent guidelines, the balance for digital publishers is that of a tragedy foretold.

In January this year, stricter guidelines for GDPR consent collection were introduced in Italy. In a nutshell, within cookie banners, publishers must provide for the inclusion of an X or explicit opt-out text that allows users to deny consent to the tracking of their web browsing patterns that have always been used for effective profiling of advertising campaigns. The new directive exposes one of the most incredible contradictions of our time, a huge misunderstanding based on a very poor understanding of the meaning of the term privacy in the digital age by both users and the legislature itself. There are three basic postulates underlying user behavior on the Web: 1) Few people like publicity, 2) paid content online appeals like Pinamonti appeals to Roberto Mancini, and 3) online privacy not only never existed but basicly, users care about it like they would care about a gorgonzola and speck risotto in August in Calabria.

But are we sure that users are clear about the weight of the request being made of them?

Users have long given up on protecting their digital privacy, unhesitatingly pouring their tastes, trends and consumption habits within social platforms, online shopping, email and even sharing their somatic features with apps made in China. Every day, each of us releases hyper-profiled personal information with Amazon, which knows exactly our and our family members’ consumption preferences, what we buy, what we ingest, and how we dress. Every day we share our stories, important moments in our lives, and membership in opinion groups on social platforms.

As users, we accept without qualms the profiling of our data within these platforms for one simple reason: we assume that consent is essential to the enjoyment of the specific product or service we like. Too bad that the companies we share that data with are in their spare time the biggest ad networks the world has ever seen. The truth is that no one is outraged by this, we care little about the issue, and we have always cared less about privacy.

In contrast, when it comes to editorial content on the Web, the music changes.

Opening any web header in our country, the user is shown an incomprehensible message along the lines of this one:

“We and selected third parties use cookies or similar technologies for technical purposes and, with your consent, also for other purposes as specified in the cookie policy . Refusal of consent may make related functions unavailable.
Regarding advertising, we and selected third parties may use precise geolocation data and identification through device scanning in order to store and/or access information on a device and process personal data such as your usage data, for the following advertising purposes: personalized ads and content, ad and content evaluation, audience observations, and product development.
You can freely give, refuse or revoke your consent, at any time, by accessing the preference panel.
You can consent to the use of such technologies by using the “Accept” button. By closing this disclosure, you continue without accepting.”

It is enough to read the first three lines of this legalese supercazzola to understand that the ‘user is not provided with the minimum tools to fully understand the object of the request put before him. The message that goes through is pretty much, “Do you accept an incomprehensible set of services that you don’t understand and whose practical implications you totally ignore? Or do you simply reject/ignore them and continue doing what you were here to do?” What the user doesn’t know (which is then the only thing he should be told) is that by rejecting/ignoring that formless pangaea of requests contained in the cookie banner, he is effectively decreeing the end of the ‘free, free and plural Internet that he has known to date. In other words, he is unwittingly accepting a pay-per-view version of the Internet that he certainly does not share.

The toll of a tragedy foretold for Italian publishers

Six months after the adoption of the new GDPR consent guidelines, the balance for digital publishers is that of a tragedy foretold. The introduction of the new cookie banner has produced a drop in ad impressions ranging from -30% to -50% compared to the first half of last year (trust me, this figure applies to all Italian publishers, and I strongly advise those who do not find themselves in this statistic to conduct specific tests net of the data reported by their CMP). This occurs because if a user denies consent or simply ignores the cookie banner, they are not shown profiled advertising that covers the vast majority of campaigns to date on the Web. Currently, there are no effective solutions to monetize nonconsenting users, except for campaigns in reservation or through Google’s limited ads. In other words, a total disaster.

The cookieless world will be the most resounding own goal in the history of the web

What has happened so far is just the beginning of a much larger issue that will manifest itself in full magnitude in 2023 with the sunset of third-party cookies on Google chrome. At that point the greatest own goal in the history of the Internet will be accomplished, at the hands of a legislature that in the name of a confused conception of privacy and in an attempt to limit the monopoly of the digital giants has unwittingly (or so it is hoped) ended up favoring their ultimate success. The reason is simple, user profiling will only be possible (I simplify) through the collection of first-party data, that is, browsing data of its registered users. But who possesses a significant volume of reliable first-party data nowadays? Simple: only Google, Meta, Amazon and Tiktok, i.e., products and services to which users have more or less consciously entrusted their lives without asking too many questions.

Can publishers collect first-party data?

A single publisher can collect first-party data to a small extent and with very low effectiveness in relative terms. To better understand the issue, just consider that web publishers have real direct traffic that averages around 10-20 (be careful not to be confused by the Google Analytics figure which is misleading as it includes accesses from Google Discover), the rest of the traffic is typically driven by Google in all its forms (Search, News and Discover), referrals and social networks. In practical terms, this means that a user who lands on an editorial site attracted to a specific piece of content has the sole objective of reading that content with an attitude that is totally agnostic to the headline that hosts it. What interest would such a user have in filling out a registration form? Virtually none.

First-party data collection needs a more nuanced strategy, linked to a material benefit that the user gets by registering, for example, a personalized experience with relevant and exclusive content that justifies the registration. It is a winding road whose benefit will be the preserve of a few and which lends itself poorly to the needs of the average digital publisher. In most cases, submitting a registration or subscription request in such a fleeting browsing context would inevitably lead to an exponential increase in bounce rate, with a concomitant reduction in page views and thus monetizable impressions.

Will it be a subscription-based future for Italian publishers?

For 99 percent of digital publishers, the answer is no. Basically, users hate to pay for the consumption of online content, and the sad reality is that the quality of journalistic content is not a sufficient condition for purchasing subscriptions since news is now considered a commodity. It is a trend that is likely to continue in Italy in the coming years, despite the propulsive boost in subscriptions given by the pandemic in the past two years. Corriere della Sera, from my point of view the best journalistic reality in Italy, reached 380,000 subscribers in 2021, which is a lot in relative terms in the national panorama but is a figure that in my opinion confirms the little “futurability” of the subscription model (at least in pure form) in our country. Like it or not, advertising will remain the main source of livelihood for digital publishing for a long time to come, and the demise of cookies is a major blow to the sustainability of the publishing system.

How to survive in a cookieless world

My intention is not to paint an apocalyptic scenario as an end in itself but to make everyone aware of the need to analyze digital phenomena with greater foresight, moving beyond the superficiality that has characterized this mad rush toward the chimera of the privacy, an issue too complex to be dismissed with a cookie banner.

That said, the digital industry is accustomed to dealing with momentous changes such as this, and major industry players have long since moved to find solutions to mitigate the absence of third-party cookies. I will not dwell in this article on the different solutions currently on the market because they basically have as their lowest common denominator to identify the most legally viable way to recreate the cookie concept without making use of cookies.

Instead, I turn to what a publisher will realistically be able to do to safeguard its desirability in a cookieless world in which advertisers will retain the same expectations as in the cookiefull world. In this respect, few know that data-driven advertising need not rely on behavioral targeting to be effective. Contextual targeting has made great strides in recent years and offers tremendous opportunities for the delivery of effective, targeted advertising campaigns that do not involve the collection of terabytes of sensitive user data.

In fact, until recently, the concept of contextual targeting was limited to the matchmaking between ad campaigns and specific keywords contained within web pages. Today, it is possible to use NLP (natural language processing) systems to infer the meaning of web content so that advertisers can use specific contexts and brand safety to promote their products/services. The advertiser has the ability to choose semantic contexts with which to associate their brand without raising any privacy issues.

The same is true for digital publishers, who can use NLP technologies to segment their content into IAB-recognized categories and include them in the bid system visible to advertisers. It is an avenue for publishers to make their offerings recognizable in the marketplace and able to create a competitive advantage in the eyes of an advertiser.

This is just the beginning, and we are sure to see some great things in the coming months. On the scales are two equally important needs to be protected: the right to true and informed privacy for users and the protection of digital content creators, who are essential players in ensuring free, plural and free information on the Web.