Originally, Been Choice operated through a virtual private network (VPN) that used, as VPNs generally do, root certificates to filter ad traffic and block ads and third-party trackers in apps, including Facebook, Pinterest, Yahoo and Google.
At the time, Apple deemed the practice “no bueno” because of privacy concerns, so Been Choice reconfigured its app to remove the root certs and was ultimately let back into the App Store.
And then all was quiet on the western front. Been Choice, which has around 25,000 downloads, focused on finding more partners to power the “Earn Mode” part of its app.
But Yoon suspects Earn Mode is part of what kindled Apple’s ire. Perhaps Apple isn’t jazzed by a third party – one it had to go back and forth with on a security issue – positioning itself as a middleman whose main value proposition centers on handling consumer data. Or, perhaps, Apple believes that allowing consumers to sell their own data to businesses interferes with the services that Apple provides.
“If ad blocking was the problem, all Apple had to do was tell us and we would have been more than happy to remove it,” Yoon said. “So, the only thing I can think of is that it must be the model itself, the fact that we’re trying to carve out a segment of users that want a different sort of relationship with companies, and with companies that want access to better data.”
In Yoon’s view, the ecosystem is split into two sections when it comes to data: the haves and the have-nots.
“There’s Facebook, Google and, of course, Apple, on one hand, and then there are all of the other companies out there just sort of scrambling for some sort of purchase on the user information that drives most of the innovation in the consumer-facing space,” Yoon said. “Maybe Apple wants to be the gatekeeper of this, a champion of user privacy. Perhaps they’ll even have a competing product, I don’t know.”
Although the harshness of Apple’s rebuke stings, Been Choice isn’t beaten yet, Yoon said.
The company plans to release a web app version of Been Choice that revolves around Earn Mode – aka no ad blocking – within the next four weeks to be distributed outside of the App Store.
Getting rid of ad blocking in the web app is mainly a practical consideration. “It doesn’t make sense to go outside of Apple’s ecosystem to block when blocking is so much more efficient using their tools,” said Yoon. “And, anyway, there are lots of other ad-blocking options out there for people who want to block.”
In addition to getting the web app out the door, the focus going forward will be on fundraising and reaching out to brands, retailers, agencies and publishers to discuss potential partnerships.
The pitch to partners will be around transparency and quality. Brands will get access to first-party data collected with user opt-in, while users get rewards and a more transparent relationship with advertisers.
There will be challenges, though. For one, scale is going to be an issue. And it’s also not a completely new idea. Others, including a startup called Enliken, which folded in 2013, have tried to give users more control over their data, and failed. There just wasn’t enough user interest.
But Yoon is optimistic.
“We’re talking about people sharing their data with brands through an explicit consent-driven relationship,” Yoon said. “We actually view what we’re doing as an ultimate solution to ad blocking.”
In other words, it’s about choice. If a user chooses to block, that’s fine. But if they’re presented with a viable value exchange, maybe they’ll play. That’s the idea, anyway.
And the industry is looking for solutions, especially as the debate around consumer privacy intensifies.
“What happened to us wasn’t great, but it also wasn’t a death knell – and it definitely wasn’t a death knell for the increased demand for privacy and control over the ownership of data that we’re going to see going forward,” he said. “It’s a notion that’s been around for 20 years and it’s coming to a crescendo now.”