The European Union’s new privacy law, General Data Protection Regulation (aka “GDPR”) will take effect on May 25, 2018. In the final countdown, lawyers and consultants scramble to work with their clients to map when, where, how and why data is collected, stored and used to ensure they provide EU citizens proper notice of how their data is used, eliminate access by children and young teens to certain digital experiences, cease practices of using data in violation of the law and create multiple layers of opt-in notices for EU citizens to avail themselves of the privacy protections. But the real question for people like me who are interested in digital trends is: “how will this change digital behavior?”
The concept behind GDPR is fairly simple. The EU wants to protect its citizens for being observed, listened to, or spied on without expressly and clearly agreeing to it. In simple terms, to prevent digital activity from being used by big technology companies to sell ads, make predictions or otherwise profit from knowing what you do online. Unless, of course, you very clearly and knowingly agree to that activity. Even then, the law provides EU citizens a right to be forgotten, erase digital history and in many cases do the things we have all given up in exchange for convenience online.
You know what I mean here. If you think about the typical experience you have as you weave in and out of your real life and your digital life, you can start to understand how you are being tracked. You freely offer up what you like and don’t like across social media accounts and, in most instances, allow those apps to track where you are, always.
Your trusted phone, watch or device of choice never leaves your side. It’s quietly recharging next to your bed at night.
You use Google Chrome to search for whatever crosses your mind, so they connect that to what you do on Facebook. Meanwhile, every time you use your credit card or loyalty card, it’s connecting your email, phone number and purchases over to your social media and web browsing activity. Therefore, eerily you continue to get prompts for anything you have thought about, looked at, purchased or places you have been. Most of these apps have default settings to also access your camera and, in some cases, your microphone.
Now, you can turn all of this off right now. We don’t need special laws to do this. You can either delete all those apps or adjust your privacy settings so that it can’t know your location, use your phone or microphone. You can also set up an email account that you only use for credit cards or loyalty cards and tie it to a phone number you rarely use – like maybe a land line. This avoids your cell phone being bombarded with robot calls. You can also turn off cookies on your browsers and use ad blocking, so you can’t be tracked or be forced to see random ads.
But, if you do all these things, your digital experience is very different. You suddenly find yourself having to re-enter user names and passwords. And web sites don’t remember you when you show back up. It becomes less engaging and less convenient to use all these apps, devices and web sites. And, after, all, that’s why we morphed into the digital creatures we are today.
This law attempts to unravel that business model for big technology companies and put more power back in the hands of citizens. And the penalty to these companies for failing to comply is hefty, potentially 4% of revenue. For small businesses, a fine of that magnitude will put them out of business. For big businesses, they can survive, but it’s still large enough to warrant real investment in compliance – that’s kind of the point.
But will the digital experience be the same? When your privacy is protected and you are no longer tracked, will you miss it? Will you long for the ease of simply clicking on what you were looking for without having to search for it? How will Google, Facebook, and big tech companies make money when their business model is disrupted and displaced with significant costs and headaches of complying? Will they change the experience so much that it’s not longer as valued? Will they charge for some experiences? I challenge you to test yourself. Turn cookies off on all of your web browsers. Turn off all of the geolocation tracking on your mobile devices. Set the maximum privacy settings on each and every app you have on your phone. Try it and see how long you last. I did, I couldn’t last an afternoon. Out of enormous frustration, I immediately turned cookies back on to my computer so I could get things done the way I was used to doing. Your Delta (or airline of choice) app is not quite as useful when it doesn’t know where you are while traveling.
Will Europe embrace the ability to opt in to more privacy or will they quickly realize that spying on you is baked in to all of these “free” experiences. Many say they don’t care if Google or Facebook knows everything because it makes life easier when everything is just connected and seems to know what you want. Others are concerned about the intense invasion into their lives.
While digital operations and legal teams are fighting the Y2K type of clock to be compliant by May, the real questions will be answered in the months and years to come. If you can opt in to more privacy, will consumers choose to do so? Or, will they opt for the better digital experience and forego that right that lawmakers put in place for them?
While GDPR specialists will undoubtedly bill countless hours working down to the wire and beyond to ensure their companies are compliant, as a researcher of macro trends trying to predict the future, I’m far more interested in how the humans will behave in their new digital world with choices. We’ll see as summer approaches in the EU. In the U.S., we, too, will have to make choices as lawmakers carefully watch our friends in Europe. In the meantime, if you really don’t want to be tracked, try it out for a day or two. Shut it all down and see what your digital world is like in complete privacy.