The European Commission wants to discuss with stakeholders how to improve consumer awareness of online tracking and alternatives to tracking-based advertising as part of its exercise to reach a voluntary pledge to phase out cookies before the year’s end.
As anticipated by EURACTIV, on 28 March, EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders announced the launch of a voluntary initiative to address the growing ‘cookie fatigue’ of internet users, namely the fact of having to continuously consent or refuse the processing of their data when landing on a website.
As such, the European Commission’s consumer protection department is organising a series of roundtable discussions with stakeholders like publishers, advertisers, AdTech companies, digital platforms and consumer protection. The first roundtable will take place on 28 April.
“The objective would be to propose simpler choices of advertising models to consumers, respecting, if this is so, their wish not to be tracked, and provide alternative methods for the personalisation of advertising in exchange of continued free of monetary payment content,” reads the discussion note for the roundtable, seen by EURACTIV.
In an interview with EURACTIV in December, Reynders anticipated that he sees voluntary initiatives as a way to prepare the ground for binding rules.
Cookies are pieces of code that websites place on a user’s web browser that can be retrieved later, for instance, to tell the website that the user has returned to the page. Cookies are regulated under the ePrivacy Directive, and they are used to collect consent for processing personal data under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
“The current cookie consent mechanisms can however be very complex: with cookie banners popping up every time users visit a new website,” the document continues, “and with choices often presented in a confusing way which does not allow users to make a fully informed decision or drives them to make choices they would otherwise not necessarily have made.”
The Commission considers that many people are tired of these complex cookie banners and just give up on expressing their privacy preferences.
Moreover, the EU consumer department considers that the heavy use of advertising trackers via cookies raises several privacy concerns, targeted advertising efficiency and lost consumer trust, pointing to research suggesting users do not want to be tracked.
“However, this does not mean that consumers would be against personalised advertising, as they want to continue benefiting from free of monetary payment online content and relevant ads. Personalisation, therefore, needs to be more respectful of their privacy aspirations,” the note added.
Allowing consumers to make an informed decision is a significant part of the discussion. The Commission wants to give users more transparent information on the commercial context where they would be subject to tracking-based advertising and with what privacy implications.
Therefore, stakeholders will be asked how they think the information on the business model and personal data collection can be presented upfront and transparent and how it could interact with the transparency obligations under the GDPR and ePrivacy Directive.
A specific case is raised on marketplaces, as they would have to explain how their advertising activities are carried out in addition to their primary business model.
Another question is how consumers can be comprehensively and understandably informed about the privacy implication of their choice, avoiding an ‘information overload’.
A critical point relates to whether web browsers or apps could be used to centralise the consumers’ choice regarding the business model rather than being asked each time someone visits a website.
This proposal is not new and is somewhat controversial as the world’s largest advertising company, Google, owns the most popular web browser, Chrome.
Alternatives to tracking
The other central strand of the discussion regards possible alternatives to tracking-based advertising that would still provide relevant ads with less intrusive personalisation solutions that would remove the need for cookies and similar technologies.
In this regard, the Commission wonders what performance criteria should be used to assess whether the alternative solutions allow publishers and AdTech intermediaries to offer comparably ‘attractive’ ads to advertisers and consumers.
In addition, stakeholders will be asked what type of information or user profiles would be needed to provide a meaningful alternative to personalised ads.
In terms of providing automated solutions, one idea on the table is to provide consumers with the possibility of choosing alternatives to track-based ads as the default options in the settings of their web browsers.
“Technically what do the different alternatives mean in terms of browser and operating systems settings or implications on other technical questions? Are there solutions to non-tracking based targeted advertising that are independent of browsers and operating systems?” the note asks.
A final question concerns the trackers used to improve websites’ performance and measure advertising performance. The EU executive is trying to understand what data would still need to be collected for this purpose and what would be a more privacy-friendly approach.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]