WTF is a tracking wall?

This article is a WTF explainer, in which we break down media and marketing’s most confusing terms. More from the series →

The looming requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation and ePrivacy Regulation mean publishers will need to figure out how to get affirmative consent from visitors for all manner of tracking. Enter “tracking walls.”

Here’s what to know.

WTF is a tracking wall?
Any visitor to a publisher’s website that has a tracking wall installed won’t be able to peruse the site or read or watch the content on it unless they give consent to their data being used and stored by that publisher for advertising purposes. Site visitors won’t be able to access the site’s content without consenting for that site to use their data for tracking purposes such as ad targeting.

That sounds similar to an ad-blocker ban.
Yes, there are similarities. As with ad-blocker bans, there are carrot-and-stick approaches to gaining consent for cookie tracking — the tracking wall being the hardest, which is why they’re pretty rare. The existing ePrivacy law requires every country in Europe to ask users permission to use their cookie data for tracking, which they do via a banner message. If a user clicks “I agree” on that message, that’s counted as “implicit” consent because the user has not opted out.

Is that the same across Europe?
No. The existing ePrivacy law allows different countries in the European Union to enforce this however they want. So, the U.K. takes a softer approach than countries like the Netherlands, for example. Visitors to, for instance, have to agree to allow the publisher to use their cookies before they can move on to the site’s content. In the Netherlands, transitioning to tracking walls would therefore be less of an upheaval than in the U.K. The common thread post-GDPR will be that implicit consent will no longer enough; all sites will need to have “explicit” consumer consent.

So tracking walls will become more common? 
That’s unclear. There are major disagreements in the industry about whether the GDPR will allow tracking walls. In theory, a publisher is within its rights to control the business terms it offers consumers. The IAB Europe has released guidance that states the publisher can decide whether it makes consent a condition for accessing its site. But it’s not straightforward.

What’s the tension?
Consent must be “freely given,” according to the GDPR. But the bone of contention in the industry is that tracking walls are essentially a way to strong-arm users into giving consent to having their personal data used not just by the publisher but the variety of third parties that plug into that site. A user has no real way of fully understanding the complex tangle of data tracking that goes on behind the scenes.

This sounds like an easy way to make a headache go away.
Not so fast. Once a publisher gains consent, it then has to protect user data from misuse elsewhere in the digital ad supply chain, or else they will still be liable to fines. Sorry!

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