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The Web At 25: Why Brands Should Fight for Freedom

Trends and Insight 1.2k Add to collection

As Sir Tim Berners-Lee calls for an online ‘Magna Carter’, Laura Swinton wonders how the online surveillance debate is affecting advertisers

The Web At 25: Why Brands Should Fight for Freedom

The World Wide Web is celebrating its 25th anniversary – but it’s not all birthday cakes and party hats as creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee has voiced fears that the freedom of his electronic wonderland is under threat. And he’s not alone - this week NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden took the stage at SXSW (well, via videolink) to express his own thoughts about online surveillance. It’s a conversation that’s been rumbling on for a while, but now that the man who pretty much founded the information age has been getting involved, the debate surrounding privacy, surveillance and data is finally gaining some mainstream traction. And the question for advertising agencies and brands is – bearing in mind that many of us spent a lot of 2013 bigging up ‘big data’ – is the tide really turning? And what does it mean for the industry?

Up until now, the mantra ‘if you’re not paying, you’re the product’ has been the moral get out of jail free card for businesses farming our online footprint for data. Consumers, it’s argued, largely understand the quid pro quo; let us see your info and in exchange you’ll get better, more targeted free services. And even at the discussion panel in Austin, Snowden did not seem to think that brands and businesses harvesting information was anywhere near as concerning or pressing as government surveillance, for fairly obvious reasons. 

It turns out, though, the USA and UK governments mining everything from Angela Merkel’s private phone chats to mucky webcam stills from Yahoo has not washed over web users unnoticed.  A survey earlier in the year by data privacy consultants TrustE showed that in the UK 60 per cent of people said they were more worried about data privacy than they were a year ago. And – more importantly for the ad industry – 91 per cent said the high profile stories meant that they were less likely to click on online ads and 78 per cent were less likely to download apps if they were concerned about how the brand would use their data. And there has been a knock on effect for brands and tech companies. American giants like Cisqo, Verizon and AT&T have said that they’ve seen customers backing off from US tech products.

But maybe, just maybe, these concerns also present an opportunity for the advertising industry. For one thing, there’s a definite communications black hole which the industry is perfectly primed to fill. For the non-expert, understanding exactly what data will be collected and what it will be used for is a confusing and tiresome business. What’s more there’s obviously a tendency among the public to conflate government surveillance with brand data collection, and brands and marketers need to tackle that head on. Plus if someone is willing to part with their information, they need to know if and how easily the brand or operating system in question will hand over data to the spooks. That’s where the communications industry can come in. Let’s call it the online Glasnost.

For another thing, while farming data, selling it and analysing it has proven to be the financial backbone of online business, perhaps the hunger for privacy and security means that there’s a whole new avenue for brands to explore, a new armoury of tools and games for digital agencies to create. Just this week Saatchi & Saatchi Italy joined forces with The European Initiative for Media Pluralism to launch ‘Altphabet’, an encryption tool for online messages. Last summer BETC Paris created an app for Ubisoft game WATCH_DOGS that allowed users to play with data encryption. 

Throughout its 25 year existence, the Web has also facilitated debate, the growth of a global community and the ability to access the sort of knowledge which the average woman or man would have never previously been able to see. It’s been an educator and a great leveller. But while the World Wide Web may have started off life as the Wild, Wild West of information, these days its freedom can look compromised. What shape will it – and the advertising industry – be in by the time it reaches its 50th birthday? 


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LBB Editorial, Wed, 12 Mar 2014 16:55:18 GMT