EC chief will sanction eavesdropping online if admen agree to behave themselves

October 22, 2011

Ever heard of Robert Madelin? The chances are you have not. Don’t worry, it won’t hold you back in life. Unless you happen to be a major advertiser or senior advertising executive. In which case, you should be ashamed of your ignorance.

Forget the Bailey Report, forget erotically charged images on posters. The frontiers of commercial freedom have already moved to a more strategic battle-front. One where the weapons of choice are electronic spies and surveillance.

If advertisers win this battle, the prize is very great. Using what is termed “behavioural targeting” – (sometimes “behavioural analytics” or “online tracking”, but let’s call it BT for the sake of simplicity) – they will be able to plot the course of any internet journey an individual ever makes. True, they won’t be allowed to know that individual’s real name, date of birth or physical address. But they will, by inference, be able to draw over time an incredibly intimate portrait of his or her most heartfelt material desires.

BT is, or rather will be, infinitely more valuable to advertisers than their best current tool, contextual advertising – which relies upon careful targeting of web-page content rather than anything known about the disposition of its visitor. Andrew Walmsley, a noted industry expert on the subject, is in no doubt that BT will supplant demographics-based contextual advertising:

We’re still going to see demographics used online, but principally so it can be benchmarked against other media. But, just as we sometimes hear the Fahrenheit temperature given on the weather forecast, it’s really just for the old folks.

His article is, by the way, a useful reminder that not all BT is the same: there are at least six varieties, of varying potency.

So, win-win: bring it on. Except, of course, that BT is deeply invasive of individual privacy. Technically, it relies upon access to an electronic spy – a special kind of cookie – planted in the heart of every individual’s hard-disk drive. Without consent, its exploitation could be considered not only an infringement of the Data Protection Act, but the wider European Human Rights Act. Many civil rights advocates would go further and invoke the shade of George Orwell. Unregulated, information acquired through online tracking could pass into the hands of shady, unlicensed third-party operators – for example, totalitarian-minded apparatchiks or deeply unscrupulous businessmen – with who knows what consequences for our civil liberties.

I come back to Madelin. Who is he? None other than the director general of Information Society and Media, European Commission (EC/INFSO for short). In other words, the senior civil servant in charge of the Brussels bureau concerned, among other things, with reconciling the needs – commerce among them – of the information society and EU civil liberties.

One of Madelin’s unenviable tasks is to act as ringmaster in the interpretation of a new ePrivacy Directive, promulgated in May this year but only fully effective from next spring.

A key bone of contention between the two warring factions he must conciliate – let’s call them “industry” and “civil society”, because that’s what they call themselves – is whether the new legislation actually requires “prior informed consent” being given to any organisations wishing to place or access files stored on a personal computer. And if so, just what definition is placed on the term ‘file’.

An extreme interpretation of these new rules would mean unmitigated triumph for the privacy lobby. Every time a cookie (not all of which are concerned with online tracking, of course) came up, it would have to be accompanied by a pop-up demanding instant consent or denial. Tedious in the extreme for the online user, and disastrous for industry.

The more nuanced civil society position seems to be an “Opt In” choice for the individual user, backed by  statutory legislation, but applicable only to those cookies capable of commercial online tracking.

Not surprisingly industry, whose position has been articulated by the Internet Advertising Bureau and something called EASA (European Advertising Standards Alliance), is having none of this.

It believes the civil society stance is flawed and naive. Specifically, the privacy lobbyists fail to understand that the free advantages we enjoy on the internet these days  – such as email, news, social networking, maps, entertainment – have only come about because they have been subsidised by advertising revenue. In this sense, BT is merely “the next stage” in a process which has been going on for two decades.

Worse, what lurks behind the civil society position is not so much a concern for advancing individual privacy as a profoundly hostile attitude to commerce – which is regarded as sinister and manipulative.

Industry is not arguing there should be no restrictions on BT, merely that they should be – you guessed – minimal and self-regulated; in fact, drawn up on the British ‘voluntary’ model of advertising regulation. It disputes that the “informed consent” required by the new legislation need be “prior”. Hence its adoption of what we might call an “Opt Out” strategy.

Put simply, the industry proposal amounts to a website where consumers can block online tracking by going through a long list of advertisers (those at least signing up to the IAB initiative) and clicking on check boxes. This mechanism will be identified by an icon appearing on sites where commercial tracking technology (particularly third-party cookies) is being used. And promoted along the lines of ‘better technology leads to a better life; but you, the consumer, remain in control’.

There is some doubt – even within the industry camp – that the IAB-devised plan will be enough to turn the trick on its own. Nevertheless, industry is becoming increasingly confident that is has won the day, barring a few concessions.

This confidence was backlit a few months ago by some extraordinary shenanigans in Brussels, when one member of the civil society faction stomped out of a Madelin-chaired committee meeting and subsequently accused Madelin of being “captured by industry“.

What this seems to mean is that Madelin has indeed come down in favour of Opt Out. But there will be a price to pay. It will include an open, independent, audit to which advertisers will have to submit themselves; total transparency (whatever that means, exactly) in their dealings; and an effective consumer tribunal for handling any complaints.

A key voice in all of this will be that of Chris Graham, the UK Information Commissioner and – as former chief executive of the Advertising Standards Authority – something of an expert on how the self-regulatory system works. (Purely coincidentally, the ASA is likely to be the UK  regulator if Opt Out prevails.)

Graham has yet to pronounce ex cathedra on the subject. But the broadly benign texture of his views can be gauged by a visit to the ICO website, where the talk is of the industry facing up to ‘transparency’ and ‘independent audits’.

My understanding is that the advertising industry is being given a few more months’ grace to define its regulatory position satisfactorily. Failing which, Madelin will move down the path to statutory legislation. As can be imagined, every sinew will be stretched to ensure he does not feel the need to do so.

Before leaving this convoluted subject, it might be of passing interest to hear what the punter, rather than self-appointed experts speaking on his behalf, thinks about BT.

Handily, McCann Erickson has just published a relevant piece of research under the McCann Truth Central banner. The study, which quizzed 6,500 people in the US, UK, Hong Kong, Japan, India and Chile, shows that people are indeed concerned about attacks on their personal privacy. But targeted marketing is way down the list of threats, the two principal issues being the security of financial data and the security of personal reputation.

McCann WorldGroup global IQ director Laura Simpson notes that:

65% of people around the world are aware of Web tracking and 44% are aware that marketers use it to determine the interests of consumers. “Many welcome it,” she adds, because they believe there is a fair exchange, including access to promotions and discounts and ads directed at them that are more relevant to their needs.

Then again, as one industry commentator on the article points out, that enthusiasm may be conditioned by poor understanding of how sophisticated BT actually is.


I-Level default sends tremors through the industry

May 6, 2010

For those in marcoms, the descent of digital agency I-Level into administration has some alarming echoes of the sovereign debt crisis being played out in Greece.

Just a few short months ago, no one would have seriously contemplated the possibility of either event. Now, we’re beginning to worry that this portends the second leg of financial meltdown, and that a domino effect will ensue.

I don’t want to push the parallel too far, of course. I-Level’s management was always infinitely more competent than that of the Greek economy. Nonetheless, for those who had eyes to see it, this was a calamity waiting to happen. The detonator clock started ticking in February when I-Level, in alliance with Starcom MediaVest, lost out to WPP’s GroupM in a pitch for the COI’s £250m consolidated media planning/buying account. Up to that point, government digital media business accounted for £40m of I-Level’s billings, or about 40% of its revenue. Replacing a slug of income that big was never going to be easy, but the difficulty was exacerbated by I-Level’s financing mechanism. Private equity investors ECI bought a 60% chunk of the group in April 2008, as a precursor to its international expansion. The deal valued I-Level at about £46.5m, but had the effect of burdening it with debt of £32m – much of it redeemed at an unsustainable interest rate of 12%pa. Put another way, that meant the group had to earn pre-tax profits of at least £3m a year merely to cover its interest payments. Guess what? The punitive interest payments kicked in just as I-Level was beginning to lose business. And that was before the coup de grâce delivered by the COI.

Even so, its disappearance is a shock. Set up in 1999 by Andrew Walmsley and Charlie Dobres, I-Level had near-iconic status as one of the few first-wave digital agencies that surfed the dotcom bust and managed to retain its independence. Among its blue chip clients are Procter & Gamble, The Sun, Orange, Sky, Renault, Comet and Samsung. Its top brass, who are now all out of a job, include respected industry figures such as Walmsley himself, chief executive Steve Rust and chairman David Pattison. Up to 100 people are expected to be made redundant. I-Level’s demise is a warning, not merely to those who would sell out to private equity investors, but of the fragility of fortunes, even in the relatively buoyant digital sector.

UPDATE: RIP I-Level. The administrator, Zolfo Cooper, has liquidated I-Level. Media owners such as Microsoft, Yahoo and Google will be faced with multi-million pound losses. It’s the biggest and most spectacular implosion of a high-profile agency since Yellowhammer went bust in 1990. The only part of I-Level to survive is the fast-growing social media operation, Jam, which was sold to Engine yesterday. That means about 20 staff out of a total of 120 have been reprieved.

ELSEWHERE IN ADLAND, I note the champagne corks are popping – and for good reason. DDB London learned this week that it had scooped the £75m Virgin Media account, previously with RKC&R/Y&R.

Woodford: Walking tall

Its understandably chipper chief executive Stephen Woodford tells me that the agency’s proposed integrated strategy was key to winning the business. Whatever, it’s not every day an agency wins an account that instantly boosts its income by 10%. And it gets better. DDB is heavily dependent upon international business, such as VW. Virgin is almost entirely domestic. It thus provides the London office with some valuable “shop window” advertising that should in time attract other local buyers.


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