Why Irish publishers are lobbying to scale back the EU's next big online privacy push

Changes to the ePrivacy directive will come hot on the heels of GDPR.

By Jonathan Keane Reporter, Fora

THE LONG-AWAITED and greatly publicised EU data protection rules, GDPR, will come into effect next week – but there is another set of data rules that are raising concerns among publishers.

The EU is hammering out the Regulation on Privacy and Electronic Communications, which will be an overhaul of the existing ePrivacy directive, and the publishing industry is not happy about the impact that it will have on its business.

Perhaps the best-known aspect of the existing directive relates to cookies, seen everyday by internet users. Cookies are small files placed on a user’s device to track what sites they visit, which helps publishers to target more relevant ads to each person.

A recent study by the Reuters Institute found that European news sites rely heavily on tracking cookies. Reforms to these rules were proposed in January 2017 that aim to make them even more stringent.

One of the most contentious issues relates to Article 10, which will shake up consent around the use of cookies.

Magazines Ireland, which represents the Irish magazine sector, has lobbied the Department of Communications in an attempt to garner support for its concerns over the sustainability of the magazine sector in light of the proposal.

Cookie consent

The proposed change would place more responsibility on browser developers to make users aware of their privacy settings upon installation. This includes consenting to cookies, where people would choose to accept or deny cookies at a browser level.

Proponents of this change argue that the new rules would give internet users greater control over how much data is collected on them, especially in an environment where the public is becoming more and more aware of data privacy and abuse.

In the case of browser settings, users would see from an early stage how much information they’re willing to give up.

According to Magazines Ireland, this would put tech companies and software developers in a “gatekeeping role” that disadvantages publishers’ websites.

The regulation will place limitations on the digital advertising business model, the critics say. Latest figures show that digital ad spending in Europe topped €41 billion in 2016.

Magazines Ireland signed an open letter in March alongside 50 other media and advertising organisations to voice these concerns.

Among the other signatories was the European Magazine Media Association (EMMA), a body that represents thousands of publishers around Europe. Magazines Ireland is a member.

“That (provision) basically severs the link between the publisher and the reader,” Marie de Cordier, who is EU legal advisor at EMMA, told Fora.

“There’s no way for the user, once they navigate the internet, to change their minds,” she said, adding that users would need to manually update their settings.

Organisations like Magazines Ireland suggest that a user should be able to give consent to cookies on an individual site, which then automatically updates their browser settings without the need to manually change them.

It will have “dramatic consequences” on publishers’ advertising and marketing efforts, de Cordier said.

“We need to use cookies on websites. It’s very important to get the maximum (number) of users to accept cookies, or at least be able to ask them for their consent.”

Current status

The directive is unlike the GDPR as, once finalised, it will require each member state to implement the rules via their own legislation.

The Department of Communications, which was lobbied on the matter, did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

The rules have been stuck in political gridlock ever since they were first tabled in January 2017 – lawmakers had initially hoped they would be ready in parallel with GDPR – and cookies are not the only issue.

The regulation also contains provisions on how long companies can hold onto metadata and extends the privacy responsibilities of telcos to the likes of WhatsApp and Skype to safeguard messages.

This week in Sofia EU leaders met to discuss a range of topics. The Digital Agenda, including ePrivacy, found itself lower down the totem pole than anticipated as leaders scrambled to discuss US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran deal.

“I think we should never expect anything because with politics it can change from one day to the other,” de Cordier said.

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