Post-Cookie Apocalypse, IAB Unveils 'Project Rearc'

Without cookies, digital advertising needs to be rebuilt.

The IAB wants to partner across brands, agencies, publishers and tech companies to develop a new way to power digital advertising, IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg told members at the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in Palm Springs, California, Monday.

Dubbed “Project Rearc,” for re-architecture, a critical part of this multi-phase plan calls for IAB members to build a replacement for the third-party cookies currently obstructed by Firefox and Safari browsers, with Google Chrome to follow within two years.

The new identifier will work across different browsers and privacy standards and won’t rely on third-party cookies.

Privacy will be at the forefront of this new identity solution.

“The current third-party cookie setup has created a messy and frightening marketplace built on the collection and use of personal data,” Rothenberg said during his keynote speech to AdExchanger during a press conference.

Yet the IAB’s broad membership base – which includes publishers, tech companies and, most recently, direct brands – all need consumer data in order to fuel their businesses, Rothenberg emphasized.

“The world’s greatest brands, retailers and publishers understand the value of personalization,” he said. “They know that relationships, realized through continuously replenished data, are the core asset of their enterprise.”

Rearc in a technical “sketch” stage  

The IAB Tech Lab revealed what this identifier could look like that afternoon, following Rothenberg’s speech.

The IAB’s proposal hinges on using a hashed, encrypted email address or phone number. That ID will be passed through the normal programmatic chain: publisher to SSP to DSP to marketer.

Project Rearc, like Google Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox, is still being sketched out and involves technology that hasn’t even been developed yet. It will require innovation to be technically feasible.

“If we get that right, it’s kind of like the moon landing,” said Jason White, former head of programmatic at CBS Interactive and IAB Tech Lab board member.

Though the IAB wants all its members to support the identifier and make it a success, it will be difficult to benefit those who profit off third-party cookies today.

“There will be winners and losers at the end of the rainbow,” said Index Exchange CEO Andrew Casale, who also presented the new solution, noting that publishers and players with trust will likely end up on the “winner” side.

Big questions

The IAB’s proposal hinges on using an email address or phone number as the basis of the ID, and many early questions centered on the feasibility of using such a permanent piece of PII as an identifier.

In terms of privacy, consent will follow CCPA and GDPR rules at a minimum. And there might be an audit trail of everyone that uses that identifier, as well as other protections to future-proof the identifier against upcoming privacy concerns. The ID could undergo multiple levels of scrambling to protect the email address from re-identification.

But these are just ideas, and many questions remained. (Since the meeting was conducted under Chatham House Rules, questions from those in the room can’t be attributed to the companies and people who asked them.)

  • “Is this a better world from a privacy perspective?” The idea of tying advertising to something as permanent as an email address or phone number alarmed some in the room. They were most concerned about if an email-based ID could be “revocable,” similar to how a mobile ad ID could be reset.
  • “What are the consumer privacy principles we need to follow in this product?” Product people didn’t know what consumers need in terms of privacy – which should be considered before building the tech. Yet another product person felt that the proposed solution created tech without considering the use cases they needed to solve first.
  • Will this ID bridge multiple media formats? Could the new ID span TV and web? Or even incorporate the walled gardens. The early answer seemed to be no – that the scope of the project would focus on replacing only where third-party cookies went away.
  • Will this be a zero-based email solution? Assuming that the IAB Tech Lab can develop an email-based identifier, will companies be able to append information they already know about that email address to the ID – which may benefit a walled garden? Or would it work another way. That’s something the IAB Tech Lab has yet to address, said Jordan Mitchell, head of identity, data and privacy for the industry organization.

Industry reactions

Confusion reigned as industry leaders sorted through the implications of the end of the third-party cookie and the IAB’s plan to solve for this problem.

During town halls and discussions, people expressed completely opposite points of view on the same topic. They anticipated different effects when third-party cookies leave advertising. If people can’t agree on what the future will look like where privacy reigns and third-party cookies are gone, how will they collaborate on a future?

“When I talk to everyone here, their heads are spinning. They don’t know what to do,” said Beeswax CEO Ari Paparo.

“[Rothenberg] called for a rethinking of everything, which is right, but also overwhelming,” he added. With third-party cookies, privacy, identity, regulation and antitrust all top of mind, “I think they’re overwhelmed by the numerous and overlapping challenges we have.”

One area where everyone does seem to be in agreement is that something needs to be done as the foundation of the industry cracks. They’re willing to answer Rothenberg’s call to work together.

“[Rothenberg[ is absolutely right. We need to be more involved,” said Trace Rutland, digital hub director at Ocean Spray. “Brands need to get more involved. But so does everybody – brands, publishers and agencies. It has to be in a concerted and collaborative way.”

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