by Charlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) The new gold… the new oil… the new ‘everything’. The last few years have seen pundits trot out dozens of clichés to validate the value of data. But, increasingly, it appears that our obsession with collecting cookies is going to bite us — and I’m not just referring to the travails of Google, Facebook and other tech titans.

In late July 2019. the European Court of Justice ruled that any websites that collect data for the purposes of sharing it with third parties risk falling foul of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union (EU).

Cookie cutter

Those of us who’ve deployed the standard cookie disclaimer on our sites would be forgiven for thinking we’re in the clear. But, as with most EU policy, this one’s a bit of a bruiser: if you’ve installed the ubiquitous Facebook “like” button on your website, chances are you’re in contempt of the ruling.

While it seems bizarre that the simple act of encouraging your visitors to give your content the thumbs-up could land you in trouble, this is exactly what happened to Fashion ID, a German fashion retailer which placed Facebook’s button on its site.

The problem with social media “like” buttons is that, while they masquerade as innocent expressions of affection, their real purpose is to allow Facebook et al to track individuals across the internet and gather data even when the consumer isn’t explicitly using a social media product.

The case, which was brought by consumer-rights group, Verbraucherzentrale NRW, found that using widgets like these meant that Fashion ID was automatically surrendering its users’ data to Facebook. Because of this, it was deemed to be a data controller and thus responsible for deciding how the information collected online would be used. The controller has more responsibilities than the data processor (Facebook), which can’t change the purpose or use of the particular dataset.

Horsing around

So, the ruling essentially said that Fashion ID, as the controller, would be held accountable for any GDPR sins committed by Facebook, the processor. It seems as crazy as the EU law banning people from eating their pet horses (in Europe, it’s fine to eat a horse as long as you don’t own it!).

Anyone who’s watched The Great Hack recently will understand just how ubiquitous data collection really is. This was reaffirmed the other day by a study conducted by a New York Times writer who installed a specially adapted version of Firefox that allowed him to record all of the people recording him.

He begins his article with the words: “Like a colonoscopy, the project involved some special prep.” What followed was a trip into the bowels of the online tracking industry. After visiting just 47 sites while preparing a column on Democratic presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren, he encountered hundreds of trackers that built up a profile of him — even pinpointing his exact location and extracting the logon credentials he used for some of his subscription services. Ironically, Google and Facebook weren’t the worst offenders. The Washington Post and his very own NYT topped the list.

Moral compass

The moral of this story? Well, data’s useful to us marketers but we’ve got to start respecting the privacy of our customers and curbing its excessive and, all too often, irresponsible collection.

For the time being, consumers seem to remain willing to trade their personal information and proclivities in exchange for free access to news sites and social platforms but, as awareness of just how widespread tracking is (and as the details of what is being tracked continue emerging), discontent will grow. I wouldn’t want to be handling the reputation management fallout when the first big brand gets nailed by the court of public opinion.

Now, more than ever, we marketers need to dig out our moral compass and think hard about how we’re using data.


Charlie StewartCharlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) is CEO of Rogerwilco, a multi-award-winning independent digital agency best known for its expertise with Drupal, SEO and content marketing. A Scot by birth, he moved to South Africa in the early 2000s in his quest to support a winning rugby team — a search he’s reluctantly forsaken. Together with Mark Eardley, he co-authored Business to Business Marketing: A Step by Step Guide, (Penguin Random House, 2016) and may be found on LinkedIn. Charlie contributes the monthly “Clicks ‘n Tricks” column, which looks at how brands are using digital channels to engage their customers, to MarkLives.

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