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DCN hosts fireside chat with FTC Commissioner Brill on lessons learned from Ad Blocking (video)

December 22, 2015 | By DCN
Jason Kint and Julie Brill

Below is a summary and video from DCN’s “The Consumer Rules: Lessons From Ad Blocking” event, held December 16, 2015 at the Newseum in Washington D.C. Parts 1 & 2 can be found here.


Following a panel discussion, Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next interviewed FTC Commissioner Julie Brill about lessons learned from Ad Blocking (full video at the end of this post).

The interview started off with defining “consumer harm,” with regards to online content. Brill said the definition includes financial harm, but has broadened to include access and use of information in unexpected ways. She said the FTC always tries to think of online behavior from the consumer perspective and to consider whether the way in which companies collect or use information cause real, tangible harm. She went on to cite several actual FTC cases to illustrate how the FTC interpreted the harm caused to consumers.

There is, it appears, a common thread between consumers clearing cookies to protect privacy, that moved on to the desire for a Do Not Track browser option, to what we now see: consumers opting out of advertising entirely through ad blocking. This progression offers a great encapsulation of how the notion of privacy has changed, according to Brill. While privacy is the number three issue consumers cite for blocking digital ads, she pointed out that this is still high on the list of reasons and must be taken seriously.

Brill has seen the definition of privacy change over the years: It used to be about seclusion, being able to withdraw from society. Today, privacy has become about being able to control with whom you are communicating and how you are communicating. She said that it is important to keep in mind this notion of control as we create content experiences online.

Brill and Kint dug into the myth that younger people don’t care about privacy given their willingness to share a great deal of information about their lives publically. As demonstrated by the popularity of apps like Snapchat, this openness has limitations that need to be factored in.

Kint then queried the FTC’s possible role in monitoring the white listing practices of ad blocking companies. Brill made it clear that she couldn’t comment on specific companies’ actions. However, she pointed to the Google Safari case in which it circumvented Apple’s cookie blocking as illustrative. It is important, she said, to look at cases like that in which one company is trying to circumvent what another company or consumer is doing. When the consumer has made a clear choice, she said, that choice should be honored and if you do circumvent that choice it needs to be communicated clearly and in a non-deceptive manner. And, at the same time, if you are an ad blocker, you do need to be clear about what you are doing. If you are charging, you need to make that clear up front.

Competition issues, she said, are more complicated: “Consumer protection is a mile wide and a foot deep. Competition is a foot wide and a mile deep.”

According to Brill, the advertising industry needs to be much more transparent with consumers, however a lot of the advertising players are non-consumer facing and many consumers don’t know what an ad network is, or an analytics firm. She said we need much better tools to enable this transparency, whether it be more immersive portals that let consumers understand what is happening with their data, or better controls or better just-in-time notices. Brill cited the Ad Choices program sponsored by IAB as a good first step, but said that the execution remains problematic. The ad industry, she emphasized, needs to be more transparent and creative in giving consumers control.

While there’s a common industry perception that the consumer owes something to the site their viewing and that their payment is to look at the ads and to understand the value exchange, Brill thinks that is completely different than the way the consumer understands this exchange. What she hopes will happen online as a result of “the ad blocking wars,” is that advertisers will say we need to engage consumers more, we need to make them want to watch ads.

It is essential, as Brill pointed out, to look at advertising from the consumer perspective: The consumer is not going to sit and look at ads that are disruptive, untrustworthy, that are gathering a lot of information about them just because publishers and advertisers think they should. Advertisers have to gain their trust; they have to gain their engagement.

She also cited the practice of pitching consumers’ web searches back to them as advertisements as disrespectful of them, which she illustrated through searches for medical information.

Kint has often advocated a Do Not Track standard as a way to put control into the hands of consumers about what data is collected and how it is used. Brill said that it is too bad that the many people who were involved in the initial W3C discussions about Do Not Track lacked a crystal ball to see what has been the result of not having a robust Do Not Track system early on. It would have led to more trust, and would not have taken us to where we are now.

In response to a question about European Union Safe Harbor laws, Brill said she spends a lot of time talking to her European counterparts because there’s a lot of misunderstanding about how robustly the U.S. engages in privacy enforcement and how robust our laws are. She also talked about the need for developing a new data transfer mechanism to replace Safe Harbor and the need to do it quickly. Brill said that a solution needs to be put into place to enable the free flow of information between continents. It needs to focus on how protective it is, not avoidance of liability. It needs to focus on the principles that underlie it. Ultimately, the FTC needs to be able to easily protect Europeans’ data, as well as that of Americans.

The discussion was then opened up to audience Q&A.

Here’s the video:

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