10th Apr 2022
By Andreas Marckmann Andreassen
The Digital Services Act was adopted with a solid majority last Thursday (20 January) in the European Parliament plenary – and today, some marketing professionals weep. The result will be a fundamentally different digital eco-system, and this will change digital marketing too.
But I think the time might be to rejoice. More regulation is the only way to clean up what has been dubbed a ‘Digital Wild West’, and certainly has been. Digital marketing needs more regulation to separate the good from the bad in a business that has been too unregulated for too long.
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The Digital Services Act introduces new principles that should have been at the core of any professional marketing operation for years.
Take the principle of transparency as an example; the DSA calls for any user to be able to identify who funded a targeted ad that the user sees somewhere on the internet, and to be able to know why that ad was targeted at that particular user.
The DSA also introduces a new ban on targeting ads based on sensitive information such as religious beliefs, sexual orientation and racial or ethnic origin, as well as a new ban on digital ads that are specifically targeting minors.
On consent, the DSA also clamps down on “dark patterns”. When you go to most websites today, the “accept all cookies” button on the cookie box will probably be green, and the “reject all” will be grey, small or hidden in a two-or-three-click flow that is designed to make you give up and give in. These dark patterns will be illegal. And if that does not work (it didn’t with GDPR) the DSA introduces possible new regulators coupled with hefty fines.
These are huge steps, and if adopted after the trialogue, they will, undoubtedly, lead to a fundamental rethink of targeted advertising. We have to change the toolbox, and some tools in it will have to be thrown out or put under lock and key forever.
But is this really such a bad thing?
The marketing business feared one thing more than any when the Digital Services Act was first tabled a little over a year ago: that this would lead to a ban on targeted advertising.
This would rightly have been a disaster for digital marketing, and it might have had dire consequences for other parts of the digital eco-system too. For instance, 81 percent of European media digital revenues come from advertising. This would be considerably lower if media companies were restricted to contextual ads.
The consequences of a total ban on all targeted advertising, especially for small- and medium-sized businesses, would also unpredictable. So it is a good thing that the fears turned out to be unfounded in the end.
However, even if targeted ads survived the battle, they will not survive the war – at least not in their current form. There is a fundamentally unsustainable condition in the online eco-system when it comes to third-party tracking, and the vast amounts of data being collected with little or no informed consent.
A recent survey made by Business Denmark/Userneeds for Markedsføring showed that 61 percent of Danes find it “not possible to understand or control what they give consent to their data being used for online”. Only 11 percent of respondents feel that they have a total overview of what data they give to advertisers when they are online.
This is a huge threat to targeted advertising based on the long-term. Consent is often given in confusion, indifference or frustration to gain access to content or merely to move on. Most people have no idea what they give consent to.
If this was a fundamental principle in a real-life company on high street, I would argue that business did not have a long-term future ahead of it. The same goes for the digital sphere. It is not a viable situation to have important parts of an online eco-system be fundamentally dependent on consent from people who have no idea what they agree to.
So, where to go from here?
Unfortunately, the biggest challenge for digital marketing could very well be the business’ proud and long tradition of not standing united. There is a need for common ground in the marketing world if we are to reinvent digital advertising in a sustainable way. The digital ads industry needs to adhere to principles of ethics, transparency, and informed consent. We have to strike a new balance between personalisation for the good of the user, and unnecessary tracking.
The ball is in our court now. And if we do not seize this opportunity to rethink digital marketing ourselves, then it will be done for us.
Christel Schaldemose MEP, the powerful parliament rapporteur on the Digital Services Act, said it unequivocally when I interviewed her this week: “If the (marketing) business do not raise their standards themselves, we will have to regulate it as politicians.
“I could wish for a higher moral standard, and more debate in the business,” she added.
If anyone is in doubt, that is what is called a regulator’s threat: if you do not self-regulate, we will.
Let the Digital Services Act be the beginning of a rethink of digital marketing that balances the interests of the consumers with those of businesses. We will need to harvest less data, we will need to be more transparent in everything we do, and we will need a new code of ethics. But first and foremost, we need to do this together.
Andreas Marckmann Andreassen is a Danish journalist, writer and speaker. He is editor-in-chief at the Danish media outlet Markedsføring covering marketing, communications and tech. He has authored several books on the EU, automation and digital ethics, and is a frequent speaker on these topics.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s, not those of EUobserver.
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