EU Has its Finger on the Internet Privacy Button

In case it has escaped anyone's attention, the European Union is dangling the online advertising industry outside a window and threatening to drop it on its head over the issue of privacy (ClickZ, 11-06-09; Ad Age, 11-05-09.)

Incited by bad behavior at Phorm and BT, which evidently collaborated on unannounced ad targeting tests relying on the more detailed user data available through BT's ISP business (not very helpful), the EU is taking legal action against the UK in order to compel it to impose tougher privacy standards. In the meantime, the EU is advancing legislation through its parliament that amounts to an opt-in requirement for all tracking cookies, which are the things that make the world go around for advertisers and publishers online. If the EU succeeds with that legislation the world will end at the English Channel and European web publishers will find it hard to attract the advertising that is important to sustaining their web sites.

That should be a matter of some concern to the EU parliament. Are not the voices of probably hundreds of thousands of European web publishers meaningful to the debate? Not all of those publishers - perhaps very few of them - are in it to make beaucoup amounts of money. But the money doesn't hurt when there are provider bills to pay, and family objections to overcome that result from many hours at the computer composing thoughtful web sites and blogs. An evening or two out for dinner, a new automobile, a school tuition paid, always help to quell dissent among an artist's inner circle of dependents and care-givers.

Never mind the taxes and the votes that go missing when commerce is affected. We recognize this is the EU we're talking about and that taxes and votes might not be the drivers they are in the rest of the Western world. Still, there is the matter of the artistic freedom and the ability of a huge segment of the Internet's publishing fabric to survive that should be considered. What will happen to all those voices? How will Europe be represented in a post-apocalyptic, post-cookie world of its own making? What of our Global Village, which benefits from so many connections online and seems especially relevant to the very notion of a "European Union" in the world?

Online advertising in the U.S. is targeted to the U.S. and it represents most of the advertising in the world. If the EU goes dark online tomorrow many global marketers will be affected, but in those EU places only. North American web publishers will prosper. Global web providers such as Google and Yahoo! will be inconvenienced, but they can choose over the years whether to pass or play in the EU depending on whether they can make a living.

The fastest growing markets in the world are in the east. So far, China is not proposing to choke web publishers in that part of the world with draconian privacy measures. It has different problems, the solutions to which - involving more publishing freedom - work towards a positive future for marketers and publishers. Not so EU policies, which work against the future of publishers.

It may come to pass, therefore, that web publishers in three-quarters of the world will eventually speak for all of it, including the one quarter left out in Europe. Any government's instinct to protect its people is understandable and desirable - including on the matter of Internet privacy - but the EU should carefully consider the extent to which such uncompromising privacy legislation will deprive its constituents of a voice in the New Information era by depriving its enablers, the web publishers, the commercial means to make it heard.