Data protection in digital publishing: Managing the delicate balance

Published: August 16, 2018

The roll-out of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) guidelines, evolving legislation in North America, and shifts in consumer sentiment regarding privacy are transforming the operating landscape of publishers. While the more immediate impact is on technology companies and Ad networks, publishing companies will also be significantly affected due to their dependence on technology, advertising, and a desire to better engage their audiences.

Most publishers have taken steps to support consumer privacy initiatives by deploying user consent banners, cookie notifications, and website/microsite audit technologies. Many have even gone further, introducing technology and human-based solutions to address the issue. Axel Springer, for example, has developed an "Opt-in and Transparency Layer" (OIL) to enable legally compliant personalization of content and advertising offers. Wiley has appointed a Data Protection Officer to oversee data compliance. These are all positive movements that address privacy concerns, while still allowing publishers to gather the information needed to provide targeted, contextual information to their consumers. Managing this delicate balance, however, does not solely lie in the relationship between publisher and consumer.

For example, publishers have limited control over the use of third ad-blockers which can directly impact content distribution and marketing initiatives. With most ad-block solutions, users can granularly control blocking policies, but seldom exercise this control. Instead, they are opting for policies which apply to all sites and pages visited. Also, some companies further down in the content distribution supply chain have been very aggressive in their approach to privacy, implementing process, and technology frameworks that ensure the lowest possible risk of privacy policy non-compliance. Many of these frameworks remain a black box to publishers, which makes planning and impact assessment difficult.

Another area of focus in strengthening privacy policies, surrounds the use of automated technology for better understanding customers and prospects. As technology and tools have evolved, many publishers have started to leverage the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) in their consumer interactions. AI/ML allow software algorithms to be "trained" using data collected from any number of sources. This training, in turn, allows the software to make recommendations and or decisions. The objective is to leverage machine-generated recommendations and decisions, to bring consumers the content and advertising that is best aligned with their needs, interests, and preferences. However, as per GDPR, " If personal data is used to make automated decisions about people, companies must be able to explain the logic behind the decision-making process." This is a sensible policy aimed at providing transparency, which at the same time introduces a level of complexity that could potentially slow the pace of innovation.

Most publishers are capable of articulating a path forward as it relates to GDPR, new North American consumer protection mandates, and consumer expectations around privacy. However, as privacy guidelines and consumer expectations evolve, publishers will need to re-assess their content, marketing, and advertising strategies, and potentially revisit the traditional structure of interaction between themselves, advertisers, platforms, ad networks, technology providers, and audiences.

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