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Having acquired the publishing group Polska Press for PLN 120 mln, the state-run oil giant Orlen became the sole owner of 20 regional dailies, 120 local weeklies, and 500 online news portals. “Thanks to this investment, we will have access to 17.4 million readers online. It will help us to strengthen our sales department and further enhance our big data tools”- Orlen’s CEO, Daniel Obajtek, Tweeted in December.

Pundits speculate about the government’s plans to use the state-owned company for creating a mechanism to influence online communication: a network of local propaganda channels powered by algorithms and data analytics capable of reaching a wide range of local audiences.

Expanding the base of customers and loyalizing already existing ones

“It is a solid target group that will allow us to expand the base of our customers and loyalize the already existing ones” – reads Orlen’s official statement. Access to large swaths of users’ behavioral data opens the state-owned company to entirely new marketing possibilities.

According to the publisher’s own statistics, by the end of November 2020, Polska Press increased its user base by 45 percent year on year. “Compared to our other online services,  with 10,4 mln real users naszemiasto.pl has the biggest base” – the company says.

Alongside its acquisition of the largest national network of news kiosks Ruch in November 2020, Orlen’s purchase of Polska Press is another key element of a strategy to conquer the Polish media market. In December, the news portal Onet.pl also wrote about the government’s plans to purchase Gremi Media group, owner of one of Poland’s most widely circulated liberal-conservative dailies “Rzeczpospolita”. The publisher’s press office denied the information.

As we wrote last month, the Sigma Bis media house founded by Orlen and the general insurance company PZU is looking to take control of state-owned companies’ advertising budgets, thus gaining another set of tools to discipline media.

 “The political temptations are tremendous”

-The larger context of acquiring local media and gaining access to the data of 17 million users is dangerous- says Mateusz Sabat, CEO of the Big Data For Leaders agency. - First of all, the buyer is a state-owned company whose managers have close ties with the leaders of the ruling camp. A network of online portals and the development of tools powered by big data reach far beyond the core business model of a petrochemical energy company. The transaction is relevant for reasons related to politics rather than business. Indeed, the political temptations here are tremendous. The question is whether its aim is "only" to subjugate local editors and control the message, or is it about something more than that - in this case, online data about emotions, interests, and consumer choices of Polish citizens. I would put my bet on both – he adds.

Acquiring online portals and politicizing them may enable the ruling camp to distribute its message even more effectively over the internet. - The messages spread by the public broadcaster TVP would not only be repeated by strictly right-wing outlets, but also by several dozen popular and reliable local news portals. The government is making a big step towards skewing the public debate even more in its favor - Mr. Sabbath says.

Part of a strategy for the 2023 local elections?

According to the company’s own statement, Orlen also plans to “further develop its big data tools” based on the consolidated pools of information drawn from the users of its portals, but also the customers of Orlen, Energa, and Ruch- the network of newsstands. Should it succeed, the company will have access to one of the most wide-raining and interesting databases about Polish citizens. Such data sets can be used not only for Orlen's advertising purposes or boosting the value of the newly-purchased local portals. Hypothetically, they can also serve as a tool to win the next election - adds the CEO of the Big Data For Leaders agency.

“Aggregate information about the interests, dislikes, and concerns of 17 million people is a valuable resource to just about anyone - not only a government-controlled company"- says Karolina Iwańska, a lawyer and expert at the Panoptykon Foundation. - Such statistics-based knowledge about people (big data) can be used for developing a business strategy, but also for political manipulation. In the context of local elections, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario where the social moods are being monitored and then used to prioritize certain topics in the public debate.

Theoretically, with access to such extensive sets of data, campaign managers could obtain strategically important information for individual local candidates. – Having access to such databases allows to find out whether members of local communities are more afraid of losing their jobs or being robbed on the street; whether they go to work by car or use public transport; whether they prefer shopping in a store nearby or rather shop at a discounter or a supermarket, etc. These are interesting local political issues, and they are monitored daily on several hundred websites with access to precise geolocation data. Access to such knowledge would give some candidates a huge head start over their competitors- says Mr. Sabat.

-Alone the information about the profiles of potential voters would allow campaign managers to use targeted ads and build their own legal database of voters displaying similar characteristics – he adds.

Moreover, the expert claims the knowledge drawn from large databases could be used differently depending on the administrative divisions of the local government. - In big cities, it could potentially allow the ruling Law and Justice party to catch up with the more popular local government officials by better recognizing pressing local problems and mobilizing voters with similar profiles to those who already support the ruling camp. At the municipal level, it is more difficult to group voters into several dozen different segments or to run a campaign without reaching out to them personally. However, the knowledge available from aggregate data - often unavailable and difficult to implement due to the scale of conducted surveys - could still serve as the basis for unconventional campaign strategies – says Mr. Sabat.

The question is whether the state-owned company would first have to invest in serious know-how and technology before it could even start collecting and analyzing data on Polish citizens for political purposes. - Contrary to popular belief, it is enough that the website owners start using tracking scripts on digital platforms that already have such know-how. We are talking about Facebook or Google, companies with extensive knowledge about the average internet user. These platforms offer tools for advertisers (e.g. web portal owners) that then allow them to connect identifiers assigned to the tracking scripts with specific users on their own websites. Adding on top of the knowledge gathered by Facebook or Google, using this tool, the advertiser can target a message at specific individuals who have visited his website or to people with similar characteristics (the so-called lookalike)- Ms. Iwańska says.

- Such information comes both from tracking user behavior on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, or Youtube, but also from their interaction on thousands of other websites across the internet - she adds.

What about GDPR?

-Leaving aside the issue of potential political manipulation and purchasing Polska Press portals for the purpose of developing Orlen's business strategy (this is how the company explained its decision in the official press release), the question remains whether collecting data on user activity, in this case, is even legal- the lawyer and data privacy expert explains.

- According to the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), profiling people and targeting them with personalized ads requires their explicit and voluntary consent. Meanwhile, a common practice among online portals, not only those purchased by Orlen, is to design their data privacy policy windows in a way that makes it significantly more difficult to refuse consent, which - according to the interpretation of many data protection authorities – undermines the validity of such "consent". Orlen's efforts fit into the increasingly criticized business model of surveillance capitalism, in which business activity is driven by data about people- says Mr. Iwańska.

-The recently announced EU Digital Services Act addresses some of the problematic aspects of this particular business model, including intransparent profiling, the use of sensitive personal data, or algorithmic personalization of content. Given that the regulation is yet to come into force, we shouldn’t underestimate the potential of big data. However, it might turn out that such data-based strategies might soon be unfit for use- she concludes.

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