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05 May 2022

Perry Keller delivers reports on end of Third Party Tracking and the future of Behavioural Advertising

In an average day, many of us will be asked to state our online privacy preferences by multiple websites and apps. But do we understand the implications when clicking ‘Accept’ or ‘Reject All’? Two new reports by Perry Keller, from The Dickson Poon School of Law, explain why third party tracking is now in decline and the implications for data privacy in the future.

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Concerns over behavioural advertising, or AdTech, have come to the fore in recent years. While the the Real Time Bidding system provides a highly effective tool for targeting consumers, the tracking and profiling of our online behaviours required to fuel this opaque, automated auction system has raised concerns about surveillance creep, and the potential for discrimination, manipulation and the chilling effects of constant tracking.

Perry Keller, Reader in Media and Information Law, working with research associates Dr Li Yang and Dr Tom van Nuenen, has produced two reports. The main research report, After Third Party Tracking: Regulating the harms of behavioural advertising through consumer data protection, takes a wider look at the parallel experiences of regulating behavioural advertising in four jurisdictions - the UK, European Union, United States and China. The public engagement report, Consent Is Not Enough, explains how we are being tracked online and the strengths and weaknesses of relying on informed consent to empower online consumers to reject tracking.

Perry Keller, Reader in Media and Information Law
Perry Keller, Reader in Media and Information Law

Regulatory pressures, in combination with operational changes introduced by major tech system providers, like Apple and Google, are now breaking down Adtech’s tracking and bidding systems. The push to introduce ‘one click’ online opt out solutions for unwanted tracking has played a major part in this growing success, enabling consumers to act on their dislike of prying commercial surveillance. Overshadowing that apparent success story is the growing importance of personalisation in the operation of everyday digitised services and devices, many of which will be integrated with advertising.

Perry Keller: “It’s difficult because people think, ‘All it does is produce personalised advertising. But what we don’t see, what is behind all this, is the data extraction and profiling that drives other services you use. With new technology - IoT devices, digital assistants – that will only increase.”

Personalisation continues to spread through smart devices, vehicles and environments. The harder question is not just about our privacy, but about how much control over our lives we will have left and how genuine control or autonomy should work in a heavily digitised future.  There are no easy solutions but doing nothing plainly means progressive disempowerment.

Consent Is Not Enough

Keller has also observed the potential for further growth in ‘privacy inequality’. The use of Cookies developed as a way to make it viable to offer ‘free’ online services – for most of us, access to our data, has become the ‘price’ of using a website or app, although privacy advocates dispute that trade-off was ever necessary.

Perry Keller: “The tracking and profiling process that we first saw on websites, through the Real-Time Bidding process, has proliferated. Apps are now loaded with Software Development Kits by third parties and both Apple and Google's operating systems have allowed this ability to cross-app track and profile you, so it’s openly supported by the infrastructure as well. That era is coming to a close, but the deep connection between ow we fund online services and advertising remains.

“If you look at Tik Tok, for example, the AI is brilliant at being able to see what you look at, how long you scroll, what you pause at, and then feed you what it thinks you want. The immediate question is, ‘Can you have highly personalisation of services and not have that data transferred in one form or another for advertising purposes?’

“It has always been the case that those who can afford it have better privacy but that will be increasingly apparent as we go forward. If you can afford it, you will have the option to buy the digital assistant that isn't advertising-supported. If not, will you need to agree to be profiled to access the same quality of service?”

While Consent is Not Enough concludes with steps we might all consider to meet the challenge of personalisation, the main report After Third Party Tracking makes recommendations on how the UK will need to address the next generation of behavioural advertising.

The two reports are the product of the After Third Party Cookies - Consumer consent and data autonomy in the globalised AdTech industry research project, funded by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) research grants programme, and were authored by Perry Keller, Reader in Media and Information Law with assistance from Dr Li Yang and Dr Tom van Nuenen, Research Associates, King’s College London.

The research team reviewed primary and secondary research in the field and conducted workshops with invited participants.

In this story

Perry Keller

Reader of Media & Information Law