Tracking versus privacy, are Pay or Ok consent models ok?

23 April 2024

So called “pay or ok” consent models allow social media users to access services such as Facebook or Instagram, without adverts, if they’re prepared to pay a subscription. Otherwise they’ll see ads, possibly targeted ads, at some point, and obviously be OK with that. At face value, this seems reasonable. There’s no such as a free lunch. If people want to continue using big social networks, they either need to pay to do so, or accept the presence of ads.

But regulators at the European Union’s (EU) European Data Protection Board (EDPB) aren’t happy with the “pay or ok” arrangement. In particular, the idea of targeted advertising. Long story short, to place targeted ads in a social media user’s content feed, it’s necessary to track that user. This is something the EDPB objects to.

Instead, they’d prefer a third option. Freely available access to social media services, but with non-targeted advertising. This might be akin to radio and television advertising, where a more blanket approach is taken to ad placement. As far as the social networks go, this sort of strategy could prove to be hit and miss though. One or two revenue generating ads may be relevant to a user, but not enough to be viable.

I didn’t want to write in-depth today on the topic of online tracking, whether consensual or not, but a point John Gruber, writing at Daring Fireball, made last week caught my eye. According to Gruber, the majority of EU residents, when it comes to the likes of Facebook and Instagram at least, prefer free access to these social networks, and are prepared to see targeted ads in return.

Gruber paraphrases late Apple founder Steve Jobs in making the point that people are smart, and perfectly capable of making informed choices when it comes to — in this instance — accepting targeted ads on their social media services. Gruber suggests regulatory bodies such as the EDPB believe many people are not so switched on though:

But Jobs was right too: people are smart, and they can — and should be allowed to — make their own decisions. And many people are more comfortable with sharing data than others. The privacy zealots leading this crusade in the EU do not think people are smart, and do not think they should be trusted to make these decisions for themselves.

That seems reasonable. Or is it? Jack Baty suggests the problem isn’t to do with how smart people are, but rather their general lack of concern. Particularly when it comes to comes to opting into targeted ads, in exchange for a payment-free social media experience.

I wouldn’t say I’m a zealot, but I think John mis-characterizes people here. It’s not that people aren’t smart, it’s that they don’t care. If we can’t get them to care about doing things that might be harmful to themselves or others, maybe the government should step in and care for them.

Baty’s point raises the question: how much thought are people really giving to some of the decisions they make? Do we indeed need the support of lawmakers because we may not be fully aware of what we’re agreeing to sometimes? It’s a pertinent point. For my part, I know I have, on occasion, clicked the “agree” button when presented with a text-wall of small print, so I can gain access to an app or service quickly.

Updates to the operating system of my smartphone are one example of what I mean. I try to skim read what I’m being asked to agree to, often numerous pages of legalese, but I can imagine many time-poor people would baulk at the prospect. Particularly those who need to use their phone urgently. And in doing so, not fully reading what they’re agreeing to, what tribulations might they be setting themselves up for later on?

People probably aren’t asked to read voluminous terms and conditions when agreeing to targeted ads appearing in their content streams, but are they aware of just what they’re signing away? The exact degree of privacy they might be forfeiting? Targeted ads can only be generated by tracking, but just how deep does this tracking go?


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