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By Thomas Baekdal - July 2021

The day I almost decided to hold the press to account

I want to tell you a story of something that happened a few days before I wrote this article. A day where I actually decided to do something that would potentially disrupt the Danish media in a negative way, but I didn't.

Instead, I'm writing this article in the hope that it can persuade some of you to join me in fixing this problem and restore the integrity that we have lost in the press. This is about the future of who we are and how the public sees us, but let me tell you what happened.

This story started on the 4th of July. On this day, one of the largest national TV stations and news sites in my country, TV2, published an article exposing just how bad location tracking is.

In this article, the journalists had hired an external researcher to buy up location data from the UK databroker. Within this data, they identified a single individual, Otto Jensen, and then they started mapping out everything about him and his family.

The article is extremely detailed, and with Otto's help, and by interviewing him, they expose to the public just how privacy invading location tracking really is.

You can see exactly where he parked when he went shopping, where he was every minute during their vacation, while they visited the hospital, and there was even data in this that the newspaper chose not to reveal because it was too sensitive to report.

The newspaper also pointed out the apps that were behind this, most of them being either weather or map apps.

As they wrote:

And then they also reached out to the authorities, to the Danish Data Protection Agency, who said that this is likely illegal. And they reached out to this data broker who said, no no, it's all fine, because we have GDPR consent.

Nobody, of course, believes this because GDPR isn't just about getting consent, but about getting informed consent. This very clearly isn't informed in any way.

The next day, TV2 followed up on this, and published a second article. This article repeated many of the things from the day before, as well as interviewing more experts who said that normal people would have no way of understanding what the 'terms of use' actually means when you have accepted this form of tracking.

And they provided a guide for both Android and iOS to help people turn off location tracking and generally protect themselves from this violating behavior.

Then on the very next day, they interviewed one of the people from the Danish Data Protection Agency, who urged people in Denmark to exercise their rights under GDPR to put a stop to this.

And then on the very same day, TV2 published a 4th article, this one interviewing the Chairman from the Danish Consumer Council, who said they would open a case to check the legality of what is happening here, and demand that data sharing like this would be stopped.

As they said:

We do not believe that companies should resell data where it is so easy to identify who the information belongs to.

...and...

We consumers are not aware of what we say yes to when we download these apps. We do not know what we are signing when we say yes to these conditions. This is where the chain really jumps off.

A few days later, they followed up with yet another article. It repeated much of the same things, but this time they had also done a survey. It found that 79% are worried about location tracking, and an astonishing 92% consider it a violation of their privacy.

And so what you see is a sustained journalistic campaign to expose this problem to the public, to hold people accountable for it, and to demand action.

And it's great.

From a journalistic perspective, this is exactly why journalism is so important. This is why society needs us. And this is why journalism needs to be protected and supported.

This story captures the very essence of journalism, and it's because of stories like this that I became a media analyst. I believe in the importance, the power, and the value of journalism exactly because of stories like this.

This is why we are here!! ... It's brilliant!

However...there was a problem.

You see, while this news site was doing all this amazing work, and doing all these interviews, data investigation, and much more, the news site also did what every other news site is doing. It was collecting its own data.

When a reader wanted to read any of the above articles, they were met with this GDPR dialog.

It tells people that TV2 "Respect[s] the protection of personal information" ... oh, but BTW, we are also doing accurate geolocation tracking and identification which we are then facilitating to hundreds of third-party 'partners' ... the very same type of 'partners' who they just spent several days telling us are the worst on the planet.

I mean... seriously?!!?

No... seriously?!!? What the actual frak?

This is insane, but more than that, it completely undermines your journalistic integrity. If you do this, then nothing you wrote has any meaning. You are not a journalistic institution with a higher ideal and an important function for society, you are just another company violating people's privacy while optimizing for clicks by focusing on outrage.

What you are doing is not journalism. It's fake outrage. What do I mean by that? Well, fake outrage is when you are really outraged when others do something, but you suddenly have no problem with it when you do it yourself.

This is the type of behavior we expect from some of the worst politicians, but it's not what we should expect from the press.

What you write and who you are MUST BE THE SAME!

We are undermining the very core principles of journalistic integrity. We tell the world that we cannot be trusted, and cannot be relied upon to take responsibility for our journalistic focus.

And so, I got angry. Not just because of this one story, but because I come across this problem every single week.

For more than a decade, I have had to deal with this. I have seen newspapers say: "Trust us", but then they do things that clearly cannot be trusted. I have seen media organizations lobby against the tech companies, while also lobbying to be allowed to do all these bad things themselves. I have seen editors explain that 'the newsroom is separate from the business side', as if that was a valid excuse (it's not). I have seen media executives claim that 'privacy doesn't apply to journalism because newspapers have to make money' ... I have even had media executives tell me this directly.

Here is a Twitter thread I posted a week ago. In this you can see how the two largest news sites in my country both become impossible to use if you actually refuse to accept tracking. So the same newspapers who claim that tracking is bad and encourage people to 'exercise their rights' have implemented systems that make that impossible to do.

It's so bad that even if people try to protect themselves from this, newspapers are just ignoring it and allowing third-parties to track people anyway using 'legitimate interests' as an excuse. And over the past several years, publishers have optimized their GDPR dialogs around what we call 'dark patterns', that are optimized to trick as many people as possible, by making it as confusing as you can for people to realize what any of this means.

This is not the behavior of someone who can be trusted. This is the behavior of a scammer.

And so, I reached my breaking point as a media analyst.

There are two reasons why this is affecting me so much.

First, it's about my love for journalism. I became a media analyst because I love the journalistic ideal. I believe in journalism, in our role, and in our importance, and seeing things like this undermines that.

But secondly, it's about the damage it is causing to all of us. We can clearly see the problems we have around trust, we can see how the public is constantly questioning the integrity of the press (some of it justifiably so, others not so much). These are all things that we can analyze, study, and measure, and which clearly show that we do not provide the value that we are supposed to. And while privacy is only one of many problems, it is the one that is the most clear to the public.

Back on June 27, I came across this example. This is an article specifically focusing on the consent dialogs, telling people that they are the worst thing ever. But, wait, before you can read this article you have to click 'I agree' to the newspaper doing this to you.

Newspapers think they can just get away with this and that it doesn't matter, but it does. Every single time a reader sees this, they are reminded that you cannot be trusted. And more than that, you are not just damaging your own reputation, you are damaging the reputation of the entire media industry.

But you know what the worst part of this is? It's that all of these articles never talk about the newspapers. They are always pointing fingers at others. They are saying "Oh, it's the apps on Android that is doing this", and "It's Google who is doing this". You are always pretending to be the good guy.

In the four articles from TV2, there is not a single mention about how the newspapers are also collecting and sharing this data. Not once did they even care to mention that. Instead, they made it sound like the newspapers are the protectors of privacy by pointing to other articles from other newspapers who have also called out privacy problems.

And just think about this for a second. TV2's own journalism found that 92% of their readers consider this to be a violation of their privacy, and yet, they pretend to be the good guy while doing it too.

This is pathetic, and it's dishonest!

And so, I got so fed up with this that I decided to do something about it. I was going to put a stop to this nonsense the only way I know how ... by exposing the press in a journalistic way.

And so I started to create a plan. Basically I would do exactly the same as TV2 had done. I would interview, hold to account, and investigate this, but instead of focusing on 'apps on Android', I would focus my coverage on TV2.

The plan to hold the press to account

Here is what I had planned:

Firstly, I would reach out to TV2 and I would ask them two questions. I would say to them: "Following the four articles you recently posted about the problems with location sharing, what impact will this have on TV2 as a media company? What steps have you taken or plan to take to stop your own use and sharing of location tracking?"

I was not expecting this interview to lead to anything, but I would hold TV2 to account in the same way that their own journalists are holding others to account.

Secondly, I would reach out to the chairman of the Danish Consumer Council, the same person that TV2 had interviewed and who had said that this wasn't acceptable, and I would ask her if they looked into it when the press was doing the same thing, and whether they would investigate that.

I don't know what answer she would give, but having the Consumer Council suddenly investigate the media's data sharing might finally lead to the press actually waking up and taking responsibility.

Thirdly, I would do the same thing, but this time reach out to the Danish Data Protection Authorities, the very organization who are responsible for enforcing GDPR here in Denmark, and I would ask them the same questions that TV2 did... but this time looking at TV2's data sharing.

Fourthly, I would reach out to Otto Jensen, the very same person that TV2 interviewed and showcased when illustrating how location tracking is used. I would then show him the screenshot of the GDPR dialog from TV2 and ask him to comment on how he felt when seeing that the newspaper was doing exactly the same thing that they just interviewed him about a week earlier.

I'm pretty sure he would not have been too happy about that, having been violated once, and then violated again by someone he thought had helped him and that he could actually trust (which he can't).

Fifthly, I would also do an investigation. TV2 hired a company to look into the data, so I would do that too. My plan was to set up a browser that allowed all tracking (nothing would be blocked), and then I would use that to read the news for two weeks. After this, I would contact each of the major Danish newspapers, and exercise my rights under GDPR to get my data.

I expected this to be almost useless, because the problem with publishers is that they are not the ones doing the data tracking, their hundreds of third-party partners are doing that. But I would illustrate this problem by exposing how newspapers are incapable of living up to GDPR requirements for data transparency.

(Remember, I can get far better data from the tech companies because they are all first-party focused. So Facebook actually tells me what data they have collected, while newspapers probably wouldn't ... or couldn't).

And then when I had all of this, I would write this up in a series of articles, just like TV2 did, and expose the newspapers for their own hypocrisy. I would force them to be accountable for their behavior, and I would put them under the same pressure from consumer rights organizations and government institutions that their own journalism is putting on others.

This was the plan.

And mind you, I wasn't planning to do this out of spite. I was doing this because I was so frustrated by seeing the media industry destroy their own integrity, and seeing no change for more than a decade, that I had reached the point that this felt like the last remaining option to maybe get things to change. If this didn't cause the media industry to focus on being truly trustworthy, nothing would.

I also knew that doing this might potentially harm me. I might lose subscribers because of this, I would certainly never be hired to do a strategy review by any of the big Danish newspapers, and other people in the industry might start to see me as 'the enemy'. But after having spent more than a decade trying to help publishers fix this, to no avail, it was either this or see the industry that I love lose more and more of their integrity.

Because, remember, the trends around privacy are crystal clear. The public is not going to allow this in the future, and the big tech companies are all taking steps to create a more trusted use of data around their first-party data platforms. So, from a trend perspective, we in the press are increasingly falling behind, and it's hurting us all.

And so this was what I was going to do ... starting 'tomorrow' after a good night's sleep.

However, I never did this.

I went to bed, but I was still so frustrated that I couldn't sleep. Instead, I reached out for my iPad, and I watched the new Disney movie: "Raya and The Last Dragon".

It's a great movie, and the story centers around five groups who are split apart by their distrust for each other, to the point where the entire world around them is crumbling, and the only thing that saves them (sorry, spoilers) is to finally provide one final display of trust, and to give others the chance to prove that they are worth it for the benefit of all.

I watched this movie while thinking about everything, and I decided to write this article instead. I don't want to attack my friends in the press (even though that would be the right thing to do considering their actions).

Instead, we have a decision to make as a media industry. I have already outlined why this topic is such an important one in many other articles in the past, just as I have outlined the trends around this in extreme detail. I have illustrated how the tech companies are now winning because their new focus on giving people more privacy is actually giving them an edge over the news media's focus on non-privacy. I have shown you that when GDPR and other privacy laws were implemented, it didn't really affect the tech companies because they were already mainly first-party focused, but it has caused tremendous damage to the media industry because we are not.

I have talked about the demands from the public, how young people think about data, and how we as publishers are the companies who have fallen behind. We can see how Google is now creating a privacy focused ad model, taking away even more control from publishers, again, because we never tried to create one.

And every one of you knows all of this. Your own journalists are writing about it on a weekly basis. But as media companies, you are still heading down the wrong path.

I also know that changing this is not easy. Many publishers have told me that they can't change because of the control the ad tech market has over them. I have seen how newspapers have gotten stuck in developing new markets because of this. I have even seen publishers fail.

But what we have to realize is that this will not be solved by tech companies, nor by IAB or any of the ad tech associations. They like how it works today. As long as you just put up a GDPR dialog that basically hands them everything on a platter, they are happy. They don't have to worry about you losing the trust of your audience, or that your journalists look like idiots every time you write about these things. It's not their audience. They don't care about your readers.

So, it's up to us (media executives, editors, and analysts). We have to solve this.

And some may say that we cannot jeopardize that revenue stream (in fact, many have told me that as the reason for not blocking these things). But, as a media analyst, I have heard that many times in the past.

15 years ago, publishers were also saying that they couldn't jeopardize their print revenue. But look at what happened. We had to change it. Look at the trends. Look at what the public is saying. Look at what the politicians are saying. Look at what the tech companies are doing. We have to change this.

Look at the revenue projections (in this case from the US). For the first time ever, subscription revenue (trust-based) is now bigger than advertising (tracking-based).

But this is not happening because we have really found a better way to do this. Yes, subscription revenue is up, and that is a really positive thing. But we are still so far from where we need to be. And our current approach to advertising, mixed with GDPR dialogs and all that other nonsense, is fundamentally undermining this change.

As Jeff Jarvis wrote:

This says much more about the relative fall of ad revenue than anything else.

So a decision has to be made. And to start with, we have to make the decision that we are not going to base our future revenue on a model that erodes trust, destroys the integrity of our companies, removes our control from our relationship with brands, and erodes our share of the revenue.

And mind, I'm not saying that the only future for publishers is subscriptions. For many many publishers it will be, but for others, there is still a big market for advertising. But it has to be the right kind of advertising, and not the type where you are handing it over to third-party 'partners' who have tricked you into lying to your readers so that they can do 'precise geolocation tracking' regardless if they consent to it or not.

That model is dead.

Programmatic third-party advertising is the worst performing ad format that we have. It causes immense damage to us as publishers, and it eliminates our ability to focus on value. This is not where the future is, and we owe it to our readers and to the integrity of our journalism to find another way (and quickly).

As I wrote in my plan above, I intended to ask TV2 these questions: "Following the four articles you recently posted about the problems with location sharing, what impact will this have on TV2 as a media company? What steps have you taken or plan to take to stop your own use and sharing of location tracking?"

So, this is now also my question to you. What steps have you taken or do you plan to take to change this? And not in 2024. What steps do you plan to take today, and tomorrow, and every day after?

 
 
 

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé

 

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