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Analytics & Data Media & Marketing Security & Privacy

How to solve ad tech’s “identity crisis” – before monopolists take control and consumers pay the price

The ad tech’s current “identity crisis” is reaching an inflection point. As Apple and Google implement policy changes around cookies and mobile advertising IDs (MAIDs) throughout 2021, the ad tech industry will be roiled. Most notably, Apple plans to institute a requirement that consumers affirmatively consent when an iOS app tracks them in certain ways. Today, much of this happens without most consumers being aware of it. But to avoid a future where monopolists dictate the ad tech playing field and consumers pay the price, ad tech players and policymakers must come together now.  

Billions of people rely on digital services and online content to connect them to the rest of the world. Often, these services and content are funded via advertising. Yet, trust in ad-supported services and content has deteriorated, with roughly 80% of Americans saying that they are somewhat or very concerned about how companies use consumer data. 

Growing consumer concerns about privacy affect every facet of the ad tech ecosystem — from the publishers and providers of these services, to the brands that fund them, to the infrastructure itself. It’s clear that the industry must act to address consumer fears while also allowing responsible actors to continue operating. In the United States, we need comprehensive federal privacy legislation that protects consumers and enables an open Internet. A legislative solution would be no small feat, and yet it alone won’t be a silver bullet to all data privacy issues: we also need market-driven solutions. 

Here are three areas where policymakers and the companies that use and collect data must work in concert to re-architect the digital economy. These steps will not only better protect privacy, but also deliver even greater value to consumers, and enable the next decade of the open Internet:

1. We must create a new, neutral approach to identity. 

In the world of ad tech, device identities are critical because they allow data to be linked to a specific device. These identities benefit consumers, by allowing them to automatically log-in to websites, save items in digital shopping carts, receive personalized offers, and more. Moreover, while consumers might not think their data-sharing decisions could significantly impact a publisher’s bottomline, the fact is that wholly legitimate economies that consumers love, like mobile gaming, rely on advertising rather than subscription models. Without data, consumers could end up paying money to use their favorite websites, games, and apps, and the survival of these businesses could even be at risk. With some of the proposed changes from Apple and others on the horizon, that’s no longer a hypothetical.

It’s important that the industry enact changes – including Apple’s proposals – to promote greater transparency and consumer control.  In parallel, we must rethink how we create and manage Identity. Access to identity must be neutral — meaning designed to benefit the entire ecosystem, not any one gatekeeper or monopolist. Moreover, access should be limited to those who adhere to a set of standardized, agreed-upon data collection and use principles that prevent bad actors from misusing consumers’ personal data. With fair, ethical access rules in place, consumer privacy is better protected, consumers won’t face higher fees to view and interact with content they know and love, and companies can continue to provide high-quality digital services.  

2. The industry must coalesce around a single interoperable identity solution.

With Apple’s first step to move away from MAIDs and the likelihood that Google quickly follows their lead as they’ve done with cookies, cookies and MAIDs will likely both go away by 2022, and a host of identity solutions will take their place. The ad tech industry will need to do a lot of work to help marketers reconcile these new forms of identity. For the benefit of the entire ecosystem and to promote clarity to consumers and policymakers, the industry must coalesce around an interoperable, privacy-sensitive ID solution by 2022. 

This solution can connect to and interact with other, preferred solutions of specific publishers, but we also need a common currency. A common currency will curtail inappropriate use of consumers’ data, because access can be conditioned on adherence to defined data collection and use principles. Alongside a neutral approach, this will help lay the groundwork for a truly open, privacy-by-default internet.

3. We must make the benefits of data exchange clear to consumers.

Directionally, Apple’s “Location Services” consent process has been good for our industry and good for consumers. It provides a clear example of how to present a consumer with the information and options needed to make a decision about whether to allow an app or website to collect their data. As a result, those that truly need location data, for example, can continue to offer great experiences and communicate a clear value exchange with the consumer.

By educating consumers about why their data is needed, how we collect it, and how that data collection benefits the consumers themselves, our industry can build much-needed trust. Indeed, in this way educated consumers become active participants in the determination of how internet content is supported. For instance, according to a recent survey, most consumers (84 percent) say they would prefer to receive ads rather than pay for access to most internet content. If consumers are not aware of this value exchange, the decisions they make about sharing their data could inadvertently lead to a drastic transformation of business models, resulting in unwanted fees for consumers to use the apps and websites they know and love.

It is possible to build a future where consumer privacy is protected, monopolies are avoided, and ad tech companies can access the data they need to support both consumers and customers. The steps we take as an industry to work together and alongside policymakers will determine whether this vision becomes reality. Let’s not waste this opportunity. The paradise of the Open Internet is not yet lost. In 2021, it is up to us to discover it again.

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