Backlash Against Consent Pop-ups Is a Misleading Argument

Resistance to societal change is a threat to digital advertising

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The future is zero- and first-party data. Audiences must regain a central role in the digital advertising ecosystem. But the industry is facing one of its biggest challenges to date, and it’s not on the technical and regulatory fronts.

There is a clash between the need to regain credibility by embracing society’s expectations around privacy versus the selfish agendas of those who don’t want evolution and progress to disrupt their business models.

Rants against the General Data Protection Regulation and privacy legislation are not uncommon, coming from ad-tech companies, executives and investors whose activities have been hampered by the European Union law and are now responding with resistance. Their “poster accusation” (a fig leaf if you ask me) is the negative user experience of consent messages, claiming GDPR is to blame if the user is bombarded with pop-ups requesting consent.

Despite the innovation coming from across the spectrum—from ad tech, advertisers and media brands—a few in the digital advertising industry keep an approach that observers perceive as insensitive to societal evolution. Seen as reactionary and self-interested, this outcry is in danger of hindering the efforts of the whole sector to relaunch as more transparent and user-centric.

Far from using this column as a technical debate over GDPR and pop-ups, below are a few arguments the industry should consider when faced with these complaints and why we should take the issue seriously.

GDPR is not to blame for consent pop-ups

The issue is not a credible excuse for the industry to lobby—openly or not—against privacy regulations.

In fact, the consent pop-up is technically not an element of GDPR, it belongs to the ePrivacy Directive and Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR). The cumbersomeness of that request for consent, where GDPR comes into action, is a consequence of the complexity of real-time bidding and the programmatic open marketplace.

The intention is not to dismiss the specific impact on user experience: It creates friction and must be improved, but as the new ePrivacy Regulation draft is currently being reviewed and the debate around cookie pop-ups is heating up, there are efforts put in place to find alternatives.

Such repeated complaints could be interpreted as a way to manipulate the public debate, sowing confusion around GDPR for self-interested goals.

Whack-a-mole is damaging

Let’s look back at the historical context that heavily contributes to the fact that each time someone visits a site, they meet the consent pop-up (due to the site not retaining the user’s choice).

The shorter lifespan of first-party cookies (often between one and seven days) and the disappearance of third-party cookies are a reaction by the browsers to protect audiences from excessive data collection. This is a technical aspect with unwanted consequences, worsened by the browsers reacting to ad tech’s rush to find workarounds to continue audience tracking (with browsers like Apple’s Safari nixing those attempts) and the resulting whack-a-mole game.

It is not caused by regulations. And it’s not only ad tech’s fault, but also those allowing it to happen on their own digital properties—for example, media owners.

It could be argued that it is part of a strategy by big tech platforms, seeking an advantage over the data flowing across the main browsers and mobile platforms.

Indeed, anti-competition in the digital space is a serious issue, but it is important to recognize when the argument really applies and when not to be fooled by having our attention deflected. The above is one of those cases.

A more balanced, progressive ecosystem

The biggest question, though, is related to the broader vision and what we want digital advertising to become.

Do we want the industry to be seen as a mature, modern and balanced ecosystem in which audiences are a foundational element, with the reputation of progressive thinking and a provider of value? Or do we want to entrench in a myopic and self-interested denial and isolation? The latter has already damaged digital advertising’s reputation and generated huge negative side effects for everyone (i.e., more stringent privacy regulations) in the last 15 years.

The biggest threat to a prosperous new era for digital advertising and media is the refusal to accept that the attitude towards privacy has changed. Advertisers and media owners must be careful, as partnering with ad-tech companies in denial is a dangerous game.

We urgently need to strengthen areas born out of trust from the audience—like identity resolution, authentication (registration, login), zero-party data, enrichment, engagement, measurement—and many ad-tech companies out there are correctly interpreting the spirit of the time. But we must proactively look out for them, since, by ignoring or refusing to embrace social change, the consent pop-up will be only one of the many issues we’ll face.