ISP Tracking: Consumers Aren’t The Only Ones Who Lose

The Sell Sider” is a column written for the sell side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is written by Jaan Janes, senior vice president of market development at Yieldbot.

The new law President Trump recently signed that rolls back many broadband consumer privacy protections has profound implications for consumers. But there’s another group that also faces a tremendous threat that isn’t getting as much attention: publishers.

Under the new law, broadband carriers can now engage in behavioral targeting based on consumer browsing unless the consumer opts out. This fundamentally allows carriers to conduct constant “surveillance” of a consumer’s browsing habits and use that data to build targeting profiles that can be sold to advertisers. Basically, every site and app consumers visit can be used to build insights about them that can be sold to third parties, even if users already pay hefty fees for broadband access.

While an opt-out will be offered, most consumers won’t opt out because they won’t understand that’s an option or even know they’re now being targeted. The consumer privacy concerns are obvious.

But what about publishers? They already face a daunting duopoly of Google and Facebook, and things are about to get worse. Digital publishers have long worked to build and sustain their audiences through quality content experiences and sell advertisers access to those audiences. Now, the broadband carriers will be able to ride on top of those content experiences, build insight into audience behavior and sell those targeting insights to advertisers without any compensation to the publishers.

Let’s consider a few key examples. Perhaps no company has guarded access to its premium subscription audience more than News Corp. has done with The Wall Street Journal, which has 20 million digital readers per month. Broadband carriers can now use data about who visits The Wall Street Journal’s site and how often, tie it to other website visits and sell access to an audience built by News Corp., not the broadband portals.

You want fashionistas? Refinery29 is well-known for building a digital-first content experience for women around fashion, beauty, health and more. Today Refinery29 is only available through direct sales, as the company works with no third-party ad providers. That changes now that the broadband providers can watch this audience and build targeting profiles that can be sold across the web at a discount.

How about health care professionals? This highly desirable audience can be found online in targeted content built for doctors and medical practitioners, such as Medscape, which is owned by WebMD. The demand from agencies for smart targeting to health care professionals is persistent – and very difficult to accomplish. But, President Trump and Congress just gave broadband carriers the green light to track these doctors on medical information sites and then target them elsewhere with no consideration to the sites used to build the data.

Let’s take this all one step further. No doubt some carriers may anonymize this data, but nothing limits them from linking this browsing data to actual subscriber information, as in most cases there will be a billing relationship between the consumer and the broadband carrier. Now we are talking about person-specific targeting, or at least household-level targeting, and data that can be sold for uses beyond online targeting.

Want to buy a list of Wall Street Journal subscribers or women interested in fall fashion or cardiologists? No problem.

Which way all of this will go is still to be determined as the broadband carriers rewrite their business strategies and privacy policies. Some may fall on the right side of consumer privacy, but some predict very aggressive targeting from some large carriers. For consumers, it won’t be easy to stay ahead of opt-outs, as a mobile device today may connect to multiple broadband providers while they’re at home, at work, in a hotel, using municipal Wi-Fi and even on buses.

The impact on publishers has not gained that much attention, but some will struggle mightily as their quality content experiences and audiences are poached at no expense by the carriers. Few publishers lack the scale to take on the Google-Facebook duopoly, and now a new wave of fierce competition is coming from the carriers.

To win, publishers need to fight back by continuing to invest in their content experiences and promoting to the ad market the real-time access to their audiences that only they can guarantee. Ultimately, this battle will be won on the performance delivered to advertisers, and publishers are going to have to build smart targeting insights into the behavior of their audience and use them to drive results that beat the ever-growing list of competitors.

Follow Yieldbot (@yieldbot) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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