PRIVACY TOWN: How a news organization can become its community’s “privacy protector”

A Q-and-A   

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News organizations need new revenues to improve journalism’s service to participatory democracy. They might provide a new service to the public besides selling ads and stories. Managing the privacy and information preferences of individuals is one such opportunity.  In this Q-and-A, we explain an opportunity for local news organizations to begin testing a new role helping community members manage their identity and privacy.   Are you a local news organization interested to sign up as a Privacytown sponsor.  Follow THIS LINK.

Q: What do you mean by “Privacy Town”?

A:  We mean an effort by news organizations to make digital privacy an important civic issue. We want to help local media outlets and their community partners become high-trust advocates for individual consumer privacy and identity protection.

Privacy Town is an experiment to help news organizations become privacy advocates for their communities, and in so doing begin to reach new readers, viewers and users with trustworthy services — and offers.  Privacy Town is a service journalism and customer-support project where news providers cooperate with local public-interest organizations.

The initiative involves three pieces:

  • Public education with the help of libraries, schools, civic organizations, about the danger to democracy from the loss of personal privacy.  
  • Helping publishers collect data that will show their advertisers the value of their identified, first-party human users rather than user “impressions” that may be nothing more than one automated computer BOT clicking on another.
  • Helping publishers explain to the public the value of joining with the trusted local media outlets in an effort to better manage their privacy and identity.

Q: For local news organizations, why is this change needed now and what’s the opportunity and purpose?

A: Many newspapers and other local news organizations are struggling to maintain and grow direct relationships with their digital audiences. They may be reaching long-time audiences via traditional media channels, but that group is a gradually diminishing part of most local communities.  

At the same time, technology platforms and advertising-technology providers are reaching the missing audiences of news organizations — sometimes using methods that don’t comply with evolving expectations of user privacy.  

Major social networks and digital platforms are part of an extensive network of advertising technology facilitating what Harvard Business School emerita Prof. Shoshana Zuboff has dubbed, “Surveillance Capitalism.”  News organizations have an opportunity to break from those networks and take on a role as champions of public independence, agency, and control over citizen privacy and identity.

As a byproduct of becoming “information fiduciaries” or Information Valets,  news organizations can develop trusted first-party relationships with the public — readers, viewers, listeners, and users.  Leaders at Mozilla, the Local Media Consortium and elsewhere believe this deeper relationship, apart from “the platforms” creates opportunity for news organizations to offer revenue generating personalized services to the public.

Q: Who’s involved in this effort?

A:  Privacy Town is an initiative created by a leading news-industry consortium, a non-profit privacy initiative, and a privacy-forward tech company. The three groups are:

  • The Local Media Consortium — A collaboration of more than 80 publishing and broadcast companies owning more than 2,500 digital publications.  LMC is committed to adopting standards providing the public with the best privacy and user experience among news- and social-media services.
  • The Information Trust Exchange Governing Association (ITEGA.org) — A nonprofit organization dedicated to develop and implement governing protocols, business rules and technology tools to enable and balance trust, privacy,  identity and information commerce.
  • Mozilla — The maker of the Firefox web browser, which is itself owned by the Mozilla Foundation, another nonprofit organization. Mozilla is pioneering web technology making it easy for the public to control when personal information is shared and for what purposes.

Q:  News publishers have always had a trusted relationship with their subscribers, audiences and communities. The idea of an initiative to clearly differentiate news publishers from sites without user trust and advertising fraud is appealing. What do we have to do to participate?

A:  The first steps should precede any public announcement and are designed to better understand the scope of the problem in your marketplace:

  • Install an analytics script on your website that will begin collecting and reporting information on how many of your website visitors have installed “ad blockers” or “tracking protection” services.  The purpose of this collection is to document how much of your digital audience is no longer “visible” or reachable by creepy ad networks — even some of the networks you have contracts with.
  • This analysis can help make sure ads you sell locally to local businesses are “whitelisted” by ad-blocking companies so your organization continues to be the best possible means for local-market advertisers to reach local-market customers.
  • At the same time, you can decide the extent to which — when “Privacy Town” goes public —  you want to encourage your users to get privacy protected, since it actually improves your competitive ability to sell advertising locally.
  • With the help of the “Privacy Town” team, you should experiment with buying the cheapest possible ads from networks claiming to reach your target residents.  Check the availability and price. These data can be used to verify or refute claims made by competitors that they are actually reaching in-market consumers.

Q: OK, so I have the analytics and competitive research underway. What’s next?

A:  The next step is to review the “Privacy Town” educational materials and use it to approach libraries, schools, churches, adult-education and senior centers, and relevant businesses with information about the “Privacy Town” launch, offering briefings on the problem and why a collaboration with a local news organization can help.

Q: Then what?

A:  With a base of community knowledge established by your community outreach, and your web services ready, it will be time to announce Privacy Town through your own and other media channels.   News organization members of ITEGA can use the educational materials, website links, phone and webinar support provided by ITEGA.

Q:  As a publisher, what is in this for me and for our readers, viewers and listeners?  

A: Without any mutually agreed upon rules or significant legislation, a system of advertising technology has grown up on the last decade which depends upon surveillance of user activities and behaviors without permission to create monetary gain for its owners. For the most part, this activity goes on below the radar of most people. Now, regulators in Europe and California are requiring companies that user personal data get consent to do so.

Publishers seeking to reclaim ad revenue must establish control over their audience data. Without protection, third-party tracking enables fraudulent and low-quality sites to claim to offer ads that reach the same audience as a site trusted by users.

Privacy Town aims to protect sustainable advertising revenue, by making the local news organization the best source for local online audience data — and the best place to reach audiences that are local and human. User data protection blocks the third-party tracking thus preventing fraudulent and low-quality sites from  claiming its ads reach valuable local audience at lower rates than local news organization charge.

Publishers can benefit from trusted user data acquired through subscription and micropayment systems, email newsletters, events, and other e-commerce. User data protection helps protect publisher audiences from having personal data collected and sold without permission — creating market power for the trusted publisher.

Q: Are you are trying to craft an argument for advertisers with Privacy Town?

The argument is already there. The project is about collecting the data to help advertisers do what they already know is right. Any publisher with an ad-supported model has to be able to make a strong case for why its ads are better than some cheap generic ad, or actively brand-unsafe ad, that a brand can get anywhere placed on any sort of crazy website.  If you are running a local news site you have to be able to say “Our CPMs are higher than you can get elsewhere and here’s why.” Privacy Town offers tools to engage existing and new users around management of their digital privacy and identity — creating a trustworthy environment for advertising messages.

Q: Right now our web pages run advertisements from third-party networks at low prices and that brings in a nice chunk of money every month.  Does Privacy Town mean stopping that practice?

It’s not a requirement, but it’s important to know that most of those networks require placing special “cookies” or “beacons” on your websites, and those files are how surveillance of your customers without permission takes place.  While the revenue is helpful in the short term, in the long term the ad-tech system you’re enabling allows your users to be tracked and served advertising on other, mostly low-quality, sites. That makes it harder in the long run for you to sustain high CPMs for selling ads to your users directly.  

Still, no one is suggesting you take those beacons and trackers off your pages now. By beginning to collection on the extent to which your users are protected from those trackers, you can build arguments to complete against other sites which are claiming to be selling access to your market.

Q: Is there anything else we should be doing as a news organization?

A:  Nothing else is required for you to join the Privacy Town initiative!

You might want to review your own digital services, web and mobile, to make sure you are a good actor in terms of end-user privacy protection.  If you have so-called third-party cookies on your sites make sure those services have permission to use any personal identifying information collected via your website.  Consider removing them if your business or contracts permit it.

Lastly, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have in place a method to “signup” new users who would like to entrust you with their email address in exchange for enhanced access to your services?  
  • Are you willing to offer them a promise that no data about them will be shared with third parties without their explicit permission?  

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