Web Standards Orgs Call Out For Help As They (And Online Ad Revenue) Are Swamped By Change

Comic: Faster! Faster!Asbestos was an essential, even miraculous part of worldwide construction for a century. It keeps buildings cool in the heat and preserves heat in the cold; it holds buildings together and prevents them from burning down.

One problem: Asbestos does horrible violence to human lungs.

The example of asbestos is relevant to ad tech because this, too, is an industry built upon miraculous, readily available tools that also, in retrospect, turn out to be toxic for human beings.

Ad tech may not cause cancer (that we know of yet), but the industry now needs to retrofit all those skyscrapers constructed with metaphorical asbestos. Everything built from here will be bound by new rules about the hazards of our building material.

Three standards organizations tasked with this industry overhaul, the W3C, the IAB Tech Lab and Prebid.org, called out for help this week during a series of presentations and a joint panel at the AdMonsters Ops conference in New York City.

“I believe the open web is seriously at risk,” said IAB Tech Lab CEO Tony Katsur at the event. “There has to be some happy medium between privacy and an addressable, sustainable open web.”

Forcing change (without force)

Standards orgs are caught in a difficult bind. Everyone understands the importance of the work. But everyone is also accustomed to that work happening in the background, without much collective industry effort.

And those orgs have no power to compel action or enforce the standards they create.

“There is no standards police that raps your knuckles or locks you up if you don’t obey a web standard,” said Wendy Seltzer, strategy lead and counsel at the W3C. “So we need to find ways that people understand to go it together rather than go it alone.”

It was easy for the W3C to standardize site loading and functionality, because all the major browsers want sites to load uniformly. (Seriously, early web users may remember that Internet Explorer once required its own site setup and design that loaded completely, unlike other browsers.)

Finding consensus on issues of privacy tech and web monetization is trickier, if not downright impossible.

“We are an industry built on misaligned incentives,” Katsur said. Everyone can agree that they want a “thriving open web,” he said, but no one can reconcile all the stakeholders – advertisers, publishers, tech companies and web users – pulling in opposite directions.

Outside laws, as opposed to self-regulation, are providing an external motivation.

“I do think the moves that governments and regulators have made have gotten the industry’s attention,” Katsur said.

What’s next?

One of the big challenges facing standards orgs is the extreme pace of change by the industry, which isn’t matched by the plodding pace of most standards org working groups.

Katsur said the IAB Tech Lab has begun “timeboxing” its working group projects. Previously, comment periods and revisions could drag for weeks or months. At the deadline, often a stakeholder would complain and ask for an extension, which would be granted.

It gives new meaning to the term “ad nauseam.”

Not anymore, though, Katsur said. “If you just missed the comment period, too bad. The train left the station.”

“We need to move faster,” he said. “We are running out of time.”

Seltzer said the W3C has seen the same trend with a move to “living standards.” The organization can no longer “work on something in a cave for 10 years” to emerge with a standard and expect to see universal adoption.

For example, Mozilla engineer Martin Thomson is co-leading development in the W3C of a potential standard called Interoperable Private Attribution (IPA), a privacy-based method for measuring cross-device ad conversions, along with Meta.

Ad tech and web or app publishers want a solution for that problem soon – they needed it yesterday, to be honest, but would settle for something by year’s end. That’s a bad joke, however. If IPA is ready to ship and sees browser adoption within three years, it will be a rush job.

Thomson was a key contributor to the HTTP2 protocol update, another W3C standard. That was a much-needed and widely supported update backed by every browser. Even then, it still took more than five years to become an official standard.

Another problem is that not all the key digital media stakeholders are invested in the current overhaul of web standards.

“We need publishers involved,” said Mike Racic, president of Prebid.org, the group that oversees the open-source Prebid ad tech products.

Technology companies bring a focused but tunnel-vision perspective to standards, he said. “Publishers bring a broader perspective and day-to-day engagement with consumers that should be part of the discussions,” he said.

Publishers didn’t need to be savvy to the IAB Tech Lab or W3C goings-on. The tools and rules that came out of the industry orgs all worked well enough. Now the tools don’t work well enough and publishers need to be involved at the technical standards level, Racic said.

If publishers don’t advocate for themselves, he said, the rules that govern and determine their revenue will be “written by lawmakers and policymakers who barely understand the most basic advertising.”

Publishers and other stakeholders won’t always agree and be happy, Seltzer said. In fact, they almost never will. But the point is to end up with something, not necessarily a solution that everyone is thrilled with.

“People don’t always agree, even after months of painful, sincere discussions,” Seltzer said. “We’re always asking the question: ‘Can you live with this?’”

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