Arrival of GDPR causes chaos and confusion, and we’re just getting started

For something that has been in the works for more than two years, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR seemed to take at least some people by surprise—including some publishers, it appears. When the new rules on how to handle user information went into effect on May 25th, a number of news sites responded by simply shutting off access to anyone who appeared to be coming from a European address.

Several of the papers belonging to the Tronc chain, for example, including the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, showed European Union visitors a message saying: “Unfortunately, our website is currently unavailable in most European countries. We are engaged on the issue and committed to looking at options that support our full range of digital offerings to the EU market. We continue to identify technical compliance solutions that will provide all readers with our award-winning journalism.”

This response drew some criticism from European regulators, who clearly thought they provided more than enough notice for publishers to make adjustments to conform with the new rules. In an email to Bloomberg about some of the US sites that blocked European users by default, Andrea Jelinek—the head of the EU’s Data Protection Board, which is in charge of administering the GDPR—said that the new rules “didn’t just fall from heaven. Everyone had plenty of time to prepare.”

Other news sites such as USA Today responded to the new rules—which can result in multi-million-dollar fines for improper use of data—by removing some or all of the ad-related software that harvests information from users and tracks their behavior. According to one web engineer, the US version of the USA Today site was 5.5 megabytes in size and included more than 800 ad-related requests for information involving 188 different domains. The EU version was less than half a megabyte in size and contained no third-party content at all, meaning it not only didn’t track as much data but also loaded much faster.

That may be good news for actual users, but the long-term picture isn’t good for publishers who rely on ad-related tracking systems for revenue. According to those who follow the digital ad market, ad exchanges used by many publishers saw an immediate drop of between 25 and 40 percent in demand for their ads following the introduction of the GDPR. And there is a fear that the changes could ultimately could wind up further weakening media companies and increasing the dominance of giant platforms like Google and Facebook.

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