Are Users Starting To Take Back Control With Data And Privacy Apps?

- January 25, 2019

Some consider ad blockers to be the first user-led mass rebellion against bad advertising practices, booming around 2015 and not stopping since.

But ad blocking wasn’t really a user-led movement. Some ad blocking companies hijacked the principle and did exactly what they allegedly fought against: They tried to monetize for themselves – rather than on behalf of the user – the data they prevented everybody else from collecting.

At the time, ad blocking shocked many in the industry: How could users dare block the advertising that supports free content? It’s hard to disagree with the principle.

But what should have also been said is that the availability of free content didn’t justify the data collection and user experience abuses that consumers had endured for years, long before Cambridge Analytica. That failure to understand the impact of bad practices caused a negative perception of digital advertising and generated labels that are still so hard to escape today, inspiring some of the main elements of GDPR and privacy regulations everywhere.

Current privacy regulations protect user data but user experience is often still a pain and programmatic and its data-leakage collateral issue remain. There will be adjustments as many companies, especially in ad tech and publishing, try to “interpret” GDPR in a way that allows them to do what they have been doing for years, until someone stops them – either users or regulators.

In a nutshell, it’s a slowly improving big mess. But a growing bench of personal data and privacy management apps has emerged that may shift some control to the user in a way that could disrupt the status quo.

A better path

In an ideal world, users would be educated and aware that media brands invest tons of resources into creating quality content and that their data supports advertising, which, in turn, guarantees free content. We need to rebuild the concept of the collection and use of personal data from scratch, based on ethics and transparency. First we need to tackle the issue, and then we need to overcome its equally damaging perception.

I would have thought that media brands would take the lead here since it’s a crucial issue for them. Instead those guiding the efforts are new startups that help users understand and manage their data and privacy and monetize it when wise to do so, usually via a smartphone app.

Each app is slightly different but the main theme is that they track and assess the value of people’s data generated via their use of websites, apps and even imported loyalty cards and schemes, which takes advantage of GDPR’s data portability principle. The apps inform the user on privacy settings and potential choices, negotiate the availability of the data with advertisers and platforms on the user’s behalf in exchange for money or tokens/points that can be redeemed. There are variations, including freebies, discounts and even cash prize drawings.

It is a commendable idea that, for the first time, brings the user to the foreground and empowers a key element (when not impersonated by a bot) that is often the last priority in digital advertising.

The user data apps also play an educational role for ordinary people who can learn in an almost gamified environment the meaning and value of their data.

It’s a great step, although there is a lot more to be done as an industry to fully benefit from the user’s involvement.

Quite a few advertisers are already reaping the benefits from the data coming directly from these personal data management apps. It is clear, however, that many of them are offsetting these improvements by channeling that data, budgets and resources into the same old cycle of programmatic activation, which has helped to create the user backlash and rejection of advertising in first place. Same story, just using better data.

I believe that quality media brands can play a big part in steering our society from its current downhill path, which is why it’s painful for me to say this: The ones to lose out in this new wave of personal data management apps are publishers. It is, once again, a huge missed opportunity for them.

Publishers have for years ceded their closeness and knowledge of their users to ad tech companies and social media platforms. GDPR and privacy regulations offered them a great reset button to rebuild those lost relationships. Yet many still seem to be too busy ticking boxes instead, riding the contradiction of trying to be GDPR compliant without significantly changing the business practices that have slowly strangled them for years. Publishers need to radically reinvent their business models on a foundation of trust and direct value-exchange-based relationships with users.

And don’t forget that as publishers maintain their business-as-usual stance, they keep spending money on third-party data, the quality of which is often dubious.

Hopefully, personal data and privacy management apps will grow enough to disrupt the habits and practices of an industry that too often abandons the shady paths only when its short-term revenues are threatened.

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