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Data, privacy & regulation - what will happen to tech firms in 2019?



Apple doesn’t have a formal presence at this year’s Consumer Electronic’s Show (CES) in Las Vegas, it never does. But it has cast a message across the show in the form of a 13 storey high advert on the side of one of the hotels at the heart of things. The advert says: “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone”. A clear swipe at Google, Facebook, Amazon and more broadly at the narrative of data security and transparency that hit the big tech firms in 2018 as people became increasingly cognisant of the data that these tech organisations have on them, and how they use it.

And as people become more cognisant of the data that is held on them and where it is used, there will be increasing calls for regulation of tech firms - as we have seen in both the UK, USA and EU investigations into Facebook’s role in political advertising. The response to this to date has been self-regulation. Facebook launched its political advertising transparency tool into the UK in late 2018, which has helped to highlight some of the issues with political advertising in the UK - including the platform allowing a previously-banned far-right group in the UK to buy ads in late 2018. These efforts build on other transparency tools - most notably Google’s own Transparency Report that has been reporting on the interaction between government, politics and Google’s data since 2010.

But will this kind of transparency-as-self-regulation be sufficient to quell a growing public concern about the use of data by large tech firms? There have been calls for greater regulation of political advertising on social platforms in the UK, and a discussion paper from Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, in September 2018 looked at how they might apply the rules used in other media to online content and platforms. The challenges that exist to successful regulation include the scale and multinational nature of these firms, the disputed role they play in creation vs publishing of content, and perhaps more significantly the differing users concerns for online content vs other content. Whilst impartiality might be important for broadcast news, for example, it might be more important to help people to clearly see where online content comes from and what biases might come with that.

But the biggest push that should be expected in 2019 as governments and organisations debate and argue about how best to regulate the big tech players, is the impact of that growing awareness among people of the data they give away and how it is used. In 2018 we saw a real increase in popular discourse (and not just in advertising and tech circles) of how data is used to target ads at consumers, how tech firms are able to use your behaviour on their platforms to profile you and serve content at you. Of course, this can be hugely positive - it means consumers are less likely to see irrelevant advertising and should be less likely to object to what is served to them. But without a clear understanding of why this use of data sharing is good for consumers they will continue to react against it.

Brands, publishers and the tech giants need to better articulate the value exchange that exists for the data that is surrendered to them. Their focus in 2019 needs to move from just using this data in a way that serves clever, audience-focused, contextually-relevant advertising, to doing so in an ethical way and investing in a clear and open dialogue with the public about how they use data and why. And this needs to move beyond just publishing who pays for which ads on their platform, and how they comply with government request for transparency.


Matt Rhodes, Head of Digital Strategy