The 3 Rs Of Digital

As we enter a new year and with CES now behind us, I have been reflecting on what trends in digital and technology will shape the decade ahead. After some thought, I landed on 3 Rs -- Rights, Responsibility, and Regulation -- as what will define the future of our industry.

1. Rights.  People are and will become increasingly better informed about their digital rights, and will demand that these rights be respected and protected.

There will be multiple drivers of this, including a desire for people to know that they won’t be discriminated against or penalized by their choices to share/not share data or the way algorithms apply that data.

The driver of the public demand for rights will come from multiple corners. In part, regulation will be a catalyst because people do have their curiosity piqued when everyone is emailing them about updating their privacy policy.

But a key driver will be the increased investigative reporting of issues around data and technology, especially as journalists from specialist industry publications move to more broad-based publications. We’re already seeing this trend play out with recent articles from the New York Times piece on location data.

Academic research will also begin to reframe how people think about their rights. Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff’s book Surveillance Capitalism is one of the defining pieces that start new conversations around digital and data rights, and it’s no wonder that it was on Barack Obama’s list of favorite books of 2019 -- putting it on the reading list of even more people this year and the years ahead.

2.  Responsibility. In part, responsibility is an evolution of what was Brand Safety. While there is still a lot of work to do on the latter, responsibility shifts the conversation beyond avoiding “bad” content to also consider “what” advertising is funding -- whether it’s content or platforms. It will place increased pressure and demands for accountability and responsibility from publishers and platforms, as well as expectations about transparency on where ads run.

Responsibility is an acknowledgement that advertising has an impact beyond just the advertiser and the brand because advertising-supported content and services can have both a positive and negative impact on society.

That informed debate, democracy, and society depends on advertisers making responsible decisions on where they invest beyond just media efficiency, and the best way to hold platforms accountable for protecting society is by carefully considering whether you should advertise on that platform at all. Underscoring that advertising income is a privilege, not a right.

People are also increasingly aware of the role that advertisers play in funding content and services, as evidenced by groups like Sleeping Giants holding brands accountable for what advertising budgets fund

While the public was the first to catch on, advertisers, marketers, and platforms are waking to the importance of responsibility, demonstrating that there is a revenue cost to publishers and platforms and a negative consequence for brands that show irresponsible behavior. 

The WFA’s Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) is part of how responsibility will play out over the next decade. 

Responsibility will also extend regulator expectations of the industry, flagging concerns about advertising failing to fund certain categories of content such as news -- resulting in news deserts and advertising instead funding the irresponsible content that is divisive or causes harm to society.

Specifically for journalism, it’s worth reading the UK’s Cairncross Review to get a sense of why advertisers will need to think about responsibility in advertising specifically for news -- given the challenges we face around the world with the climate crisis and democracy.

3. Regulation. The advent of GDPR in Europe, the arrival of the CCPA in California, or the increased scrutiny of COPPA across the US makes regulation seem like it is both a given and not a surprising prediction.

But to date, the focus on regulation has primarily been about privacy or protecting children. This will change over the years ahead.

Expect regulation in areas like competition, content regulation (including fake content and deep fakes), political advertising and microtargeting, protection from discriminatory and predatory uses of data, but the biggest area will be the regulation of algorithms.

Australia’s competition regulation, the ACCC, is already looking to regulate the algorithms used by Google and Facebook (PDF link) and the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) is looking to broadly regulate algorithms (English via Google Translate).

As AI and machine learning gain momentum, regulation of algorithms will be increasingly demanded and expected of people. This cannot and will not be solved by transparency reports, as it doesn’t explain how the decisions were programmed and whether they were fair and equitable.

It’s important to note that regulation is not to be feared. It’s an important sign that our industry has matured and is an integral part of everyday life. Cynics might scoff and argue that regulators may not have the expertise necessary.

My pushback is that regulation is the biggest opportunity for advertisers and the industry to show leadership and partner with regulators. This includes participating in policy debate, regulator education, or even considering spending part of your career in public service.

If we fail or ignore the 3 R’s and if we don’t put the Rights of people first and act Responsibly and partner with Regulators, then we can a 4th R  -- “Reckoning,” which has the potential to be enormously disruptive.

This will be because the failure to respect Rights will accelerate the techlash, a lack of Responsibility will endanger democracy and society, and the failure to partner with Regulators will result in laws that stifle innovation and harm both the industry and the people we serve with both with our advertising subsidized services and the products and services we market. 

On a positive note, as advertisers, marketers, and an industry (publishers, platforms, and ad tech), if we collectively embrace the 3Rs -- Rights, Responsibility, Regulation -- then the next decade in digital will be even more exciting than the last.

It will also ensure that all the emerging technologies such as 5G, VR, AI, machine learning, and autonomous vehicles are designed in a way that puts people first.


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