The State Of The Privacy Debates

spanfeller-sell-siderThe Sell-Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is written by Jim Spanfeller, CEO at Spanfeller Media Group,

April was a banner month for the debate around privacy, ad tracking and government surveillance on the Web.

There was the White House report on big data and its 79-page suggestion that tracking and big data might just lead to discriminatory practices – but it had little to no mention of the NSA’s surveillance actions on this front. Mozilla and Firefox were also part of the mix, with a flashy new video about online transparency, keeping the Web free and open, and respecting the individual, all backed up by new research that suggests that consumers’ No. 1 concern around their choice of a Web browser was, in fact, privacy.

Then, at the widely attended DLD conference in New York, Viviane Reding of the European Commission gave a rather impassioned case for respecting the EU’s privacy laws, not only when one is in Europe but also when an EU citizen is in the US. As you may know, European laws are dramatically stricter than anything in the US, where, as she suggested, we basically have no laws. US tech companies are not trusted in the EU, she said, and while she thought the Obama administration might want to help fix this, Congress would not allow any meaningful changes. She finished her statements with the suggestion that respecting privacy online was just good business. That notion feels right to me.

On the other side of the spectrum, and on the same day as DLD (ironic this), Yahoo announced that it was ditching “Do Not Track” and would henceforth pay no attention to these signals. It’s a stance already taken by more than a few others in the space, which on one level seems crazy to me. If someone asks to not be tracked, doesn’t it make sense to at least acknowledge that request? And from a still different point of the compass, Mike Baker, CEO at DataXu, a company well-versed in data collection and use, said in this very same space that one to one marketing was in many ways overrated, a notion that others in the ad tech space have also acknowledged from time to time.

Not sure this is an indictment of big data, per se, but it does suggest what a lot of privacy and Internet insiders have said for a while (including me, not that it matters): The vast majority of data – at least third-party data – is at the moment just about useless. The launch of new products that track the percentage of target audiences achieved by specific programmatic campaigns from both ComScore and Nielsen are making this thought all the more transparent as the answers are often massively deflating, given what the technology and “data” initially promised.

The other interesting development on this front is the ongoing education and enlightenment of senior marketing executives from our nation’s largest and biggest spending advertisers. This is less obvious in that there are no huge white papers coming forth around these advancements but you can see it nonetheless in how the marketers themselves are acting. They are demanding the use of ad-safety technology in their online ad-buying infrastructure, while some are actually taking the trading desk functionality in house. Still others – albeit a much smaller number –are moving away from large programmatic buys altogether.

I could go on here with many other updates on the privacy and tracking debates. The drumbeat around this stuff has been getting louder for some time. But suffice it to say that we are clearly approaching a point in time where just about anyone remotely interested in the digital advertising ecosystem and, for that matter, many not so interested will be substantially aware of these issues. I think this is a really good thing, and while it has taken too long to happen, I am very heartened that we are, in fact, getting there.

As an industry, we have an issue. It is a huge issue. Depending on whom you talk to, it can be solved by better communication, policy changes, new government regulation or, perhaps, new business practices. At this point, it is less important in my mind as to what the solution is – and much more important that we actually fast forward the discussion and increase the understanding of the issues.

Too much of this industry’s defining debate has been focused on hearsay and misinformation made possible by the lack of facts and nonobjective oratory (what other kind of oratory is there?). The more we discuss these things, the more we will understand the issues and the realities of where we are. Only then will there be even a remotely unified will to make the necessary changes. I do fear that given the substantially varying degrees of subjective needs, finding common ground will be hard. But at the end of the day, if we lose the trust in the end user, we are all doomed.

Digital has been as much about innovation as anything. Innovation has been one of the most important aspects of the tremendous changes, mostly good, brought about by the Internet. But as we try to move from adolescence as an industry and into some level of early maturity (a state just about everyone agrees is necessary for us to continue to see massive spending increases), we need to find a way to more evenly standardize our processes.

This is not to suggest that we should turn away from innovation, programmatic or experimenting with big data in appropriate ways. Rather it is simply to say that we need to establish standards of behavior. We need to be transparent. We sometimes need to ask a lot more questions about the “how” and “why” of new innovations before we run full speed after them.

Change is real. It is not stopping and will continue to be constant. Change will continue to usher in creative destruction. We just need to realize that our industry is big enough now that many people are watching and care a lot. Heck, whole continents are joining the discussion.

Follow Jim Spanfeller (@JimSpanfeller) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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