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Policy / DCN perspectives on policy, law, and legislative news surrounding digital content

Spin this: We need to actually address the consumer need

September 9, 2016 | By Chris Pedigo, SVP Government Affairs – DCN @Pedigo_Chris

Apple recently announced a fairly big change in their “Limit Ad Tracking” setting. Going forward, when a consumer activates the setting, the Identifier For Advertising (IDFA) will be set to 0. Thus, advertisers and ad tech companies would no longer be able to track that device across apps or websites and over time. While Apple asked companies to honor the “Limit Ad Tracking” setting before, it was hard (maybe impossible) to know whether companies actually complied. Now the setting has some teeth.

In response, ad tech lobbyist Alan Chapell is accusing Apple of giving consumers a way to opt out of advertising altogether. Naturally, as someone who advocates on behalf of publishers on these kinds of privacy issues, I had some initial reactions.

First, it’s absolutely ludicrous to say this is an opt out of advertising. Certainly it’s an opt out of behaviorally targeted advertising. But, the ads aren’t being blocked – they can still be served. What’s more the advertiser can still know that the ad has been served, where it was served and how it performed – companies would have a number of other options to derive this data. But let’s be clear: Advertisements can and will continue to be served. Apple’s change simply allows consumers to stop third party companies (with which they have no relationship) from using their IDFA to track everything they do on their device. There is actually a healthy argument that this change will make context and consumer relationships more valuable, which is important to both the consumers and the publishers of the content they enjoy on the web.

Which brings me to my second point: Consumers have been looking for ways to limit third party tracking for years and Apple is simply trying to meet that consumer need. Early on, consumers signaled their desire to limit tracking by clearing cookies – those tiny bits of code that ad tech companies planted on your computer. According to TRUSTe’s 2015 Privacy Index, 63% of consumers still clear their cookies. Then consumers started turning on the Do Not Track (DNT) signal in their browser. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has developed a standard, which the ad tech lobby has been fighting against tooth and nail. And, of course, now consumers are increasingly turning to ad blocking software.

Finally, Chapell points out that “addressability should not be under the total control of a single entity.” Sounds like a great idea to have a multi-stakeholder group help set policy and technical standards. But, when the W3C (you know – the people who helped create the web) convened a multi-stakeholder group of representatives from all segments of the industry along with a few consumer groups, the ad tech lobby including Chapell worked to undermine and destroy the effort.

To answer the question posed by Chapell – do consumers have a right to opt out of advertising? – it should be painfully obvious by now that consumers are already opting out of advertising. Instead of throwing stones at groups and companies trying to address the underlying consumer need, perhaps Chapell and the ad tech lobby could work on giving consumers an easier and more robust way to express their preferences. DNT would be a decent start. Without better choice mechanisms, consumers are going to increasingly turn to blunt tools like Apple’s Limit Ad Track setting and ad blockers.