Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Here is the news: can a ‘privacy-first’ internet fuel good journalism?

By Nick Stringer, a global technology, public policy, and regulatory affairs adviser. His extensive experience includes serving as the former Director of Regulatory Affairs at the UK Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB UK).

News is the oxygen of democracy. Without it, a democracy cannot survive” – US Broadcast Journalist, Walter Cronkite

In a well-functioning democracy, the significance of freely accessible, reliable, and accurate news cannot be overstated. It helps shape our thoughts, actions, and decisions, including the way we exercise our voting rights. In today’s digital age, we have an abundance of options to seek out, access and consume news, and where each of us also serves as both producer and consumer. The lines are increasingly blurred.

The growing prevalence of prioritised algorithms and the increase in misinformation and disinformation, particularly when individuals turn to social platforms for their news, creates some unease regarding the potential erosion of independent thought. Is the lifeblood of democracy – as symbolised by quality and accurate news – at risk? Could changes in the protection of our online personal data create a potential for the advertising industry? The industry serves as a fundamental commercial model for the distribution and delivery of online news. Could it play a role in maintaining the sustainability of trusted news in the digital age?

This article marks the third instalment in the ‘ByteWise Insights’ series, aiming to dissect the impact of technology on our lives and explore potential public policy solutions. The inaugural article delved into society’s broader digital, advocating for a collaborative global approach. The second explored the need to regulate electoral advertising to ensure transparency and prevent the misleading of the public in their democratic right to vote.

Changing News: From Print To Social Media

Not so long ago our approach to consuming news followed a rather straightforward path: we purchased and read a newspaper, tuned into bulletins on broadcast television, or listened to the radio. Many still adhere to these traditional methods. As of 2012, conventional media outlets continued to wield significant influence in delivering news to a considerable global audience.

Back then the majority of the UK population relied on broadcast TV for news updates, and over half still read newspapers. In the US, broadcast TV retained its status as the primary news source, print newspapers sustained a substantial readership, and traditional radio remained a pertinent information source for many American citizens. However, it was at this time that the rise of digital media became more apparent, particularly among younger generations who exhibited a significant increase in social media platform and online news website usage. However, the transformative impact of displacing traditional media was not as pronounced as it is today.

In today’s digital landscape, news is easily accessible, yet its boundaries often intertwine with a diverse range of user content. Technology has undeniably revolutionised how we access and consume news, providing a plethora of options to suit individual preferences and habits. Whether it’s directly from dedicated news sites and apps, via social media platforms, through aggregators, forums, communities, or podcasts, the avenues for news delivery and consumption are extensive.

The ascendancy of social platforms, coupled with their evolving nature, stand out as one of the most remarkable changes. Recent research conducted by UK communications regulator, Ofcom, reveals that 83% of individuals aged 16-25 years consume news online, with nearly three-quarters of this cohort obtaining information through social media. While established entities like the publicly-funded BBC in the UK continue to wield influence in news provision, and news brands seek to innovate to meet the needs and expectations of younger audiences, it’s evident that younger audiences increasingly turn to social platforms, such as TikTok, with one in 10 teenagers considering it as their most crucial news source. 

Changing News: The Trust And AI Dilemma

Amid this abundance of conveniences and choices available, we should reflect on potential downsides. People must possess the capability to critically evaluate sources and verify information to ensure its accuracy and reliability. Recent research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism indicates a growing scepticism towards algorithms, particularly those designed to deliver ‘more of what you consumed in the past,’ especially in the realm of news dissemination. The implications of this extend beyond just news quality and provision. Furthermore, individuals heavily reliant on social media for news express concerns about discerning the authenticity of information, given the blurred lines between what is real and what is fake.

The challenge is likely to intensify with the proliferation of generative Artificial Intelligence (AI). While advancements in AI offer numerous societal advantages, including enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of news production, a global survey of news organisations reveals that 60% expressed apprehensions regarding the ethical ramifications of AI in journalism. Concerns centre around the implications on journalism values, including accuracy, fairness and transparency, as well as copyright infringement. Clearly a careful balance is needed to realise the opportunity.

Quality News Or Just An Attention Competition?

In many Northern European countries, public media brands consistently enjoy elevated levels of trust. This is not necessarily the case with social media platforms: Ofcom’s 2023 research on news consumption revealed a stark contrast: it concluded that “news sources via social media are rated far lower for trust, accuracy, and impartiality than the more traditional sources of news.” As highlighted, the increased use of generative AI is likely to exacerbate this trend.

The escalating dominance and impact of tech giants, like Google, Meta and TikTok, in shaping how news is displayed, accessed and monetised, go to the heart of the role and value of news in our society. Assigning blame to tech platforms and the provision of their services that people enjoy is a simple response, yet this situation presents a significant challenge for traditional news brands. These brands are frequently overshadowed by ‘big tech,’ forcing them to navigate a complex digital terrain where attention is scattered, and trust is frequently lacking.

Many news outlets depend on a blend of revenue streams, including advertising, subscriptions, donations, and other forms of monetisation. Advertising – in the digital world as in its traditional counterpart – continues to play a crucial role in the delivery of news, especially today when users often expect to get things for ‘free’. As technology develops and consumer behaviour changes, the commercial models of the media industry also evolve.

Is A ‘Privacy-First’ Internet An Opportunity?

A significant online transformation revolves around data privacy, catalysed by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) (and similar legislation worldwide that followed (and continues to follow) suit, including a UK version of the GDPR following Brexit) enacted in May 2018.

The GDPR has brought about significant changes in data privacy safeguards by expanding the definition of personal data. It now clarifies that not only traditional identifiers like names and addresses are covered but also online elements such as web cookies, especially when used to track user behaviour. The GDPR revises existing European data protection laws, and aims to foster greater harmonisation across the bloc. Notably, the regulation specifies the requirement for ‘freely given, specific, informed, and unambiguous’ consent for personal data usage, particularly in the context of identifying users for personalised online advertising.

While compliance with the new law has posed challenges for various advertising business models, Google has proposed the deprecation of third-party cookies in its Chrome web browser. Third-party cookies are one of the primary methods for organisations to collect, aggregate, and utilise personal data for online targeted advertising (not to mention for frequency capping, attribution and measuring effectiveness). Although the implications of Google’s move are not yet entirely clear, it is likely to drive advertising commercial models towards a more ‘privacy-first’ approach (and many organisations are already seeking to do this). This shift has generated some uncertainty in the digital ad industry, but it may also open up opportunities for news brands, quality content providers, and the advertising models that support them.

In the evolving landscape of digital privacy, it is organisations that have a direct relationship with users to obtain meaningful consent for personal data usage who are likely to benefit most. This advantage extends not only to many of the tech platforms but also to dedicated publishers offering trusted news content. The GDPR always anticipated such a scenario, and whether Google’s proposal is genuinely motivated by privacy concerns or not, it reinforces the direction toward a more privacy-centric digital world.

Let’s Seize The Chance To Shape A More Ethical Internet

While this article primarily focuses on the value and significance of news in our democracy, its insights can be applied to other critical issues such as children’s online safety. This perspective is emphasised by Ofcom chair, Lord Michael Grade, and various voices within the digital advertising industry. Look out for an upcoming ByteWise Insights article that will delve into this specific subject.

Numerous individuals, myself included, initially believed that the enactment of the GDPR marked a significant moment of change. However, that moment has now arrived in earnest: the advertising industry should embrace the possibilities arising from the transition toward a more responsible internet. This entails elevating trusted news to the status of the genuine ‘oxygen of democracy.’