The recent headlines alleging that councils are allowing people who use their websites to be tracked and targeted by third parties was enough to send a lot of people into a spin.
“High-interest credit cards are being targeted at people seeking benefits advice on UK local council websites,” read the report from the BBC.
At first glance it sounds like a fundamental dereliction of duty. How could it be that councils are potentially selling data connected to vulnerable groups for financial gain?
As ever, the headlines do not tell the story. Councils are not selling personal data – nor have they ever been.
What is happening on council websites is essentially happening everywhere in the digital arena.
Anybody who browses the web will know, from the million pop-ups that bombard us every day seeking consent for how they use our browsing data via cookies, that our web journeys are – largely anonymously – tracked in order to deliver a more personalised service. For the most part this means that we see advertising which is potentially more relevant to us. It is a far cry from having information that could identify us personally sold on, which is what happened with Cambridge Analytica, for example.
Lots of councils these days raise revenue through advertising on their website thanks to CAN’s Council Advertising Network. Some of this advertising is personalised. Is it such a terrible thing?
Of course, it could be a terrible thing if it meant that vulnerable groups were being deliberately targeted with inappropriate advertising. But councils have total control over the type of ads shown by deploying some of the strictest advertising policies around. In short this means banning adverts that could cause social harm such as those from payday lenders and gambling companies. Some councils have extended the sort of ads blocked to include fast food companies. Control sits firmly in the council’s hands.
The question the BBC posed is that should someone using a council website, someone potentially on benefits, be shown an advert for an American Express card? This is the kind of general advertising that is part of everyone’s daily lives – both online and offline on TV and in print – no matter what our circumstances, and the reality is American Express, like most credit card lenders, has very tight controls on who is allowed credit. The same may not be true of payday lenders but they are already prohibited from council websites.
What we also forget in all this, is that the data available from cookies on our websites could actually be very useful to councils. It can give us a better idea of what information people are searching for so that information can be personalised to their interests, to some degree.
The more we understand about our audiences – the postcode where they live, what services they use and their interests, the more we can reach them with information for social good. The very best public service websites are the ones that offer a personal experience that tells people when their bin will be collected, what is happening in their neighbourhood and what services will potentially benefit them the most. The more pro-active we are the more we will strengthen the customer experience and reduce pressure on the call centre.
In short, we should not be turning our backs on this technology, we should be embracing it.
Simon Jones is the Chair of LGcomms