NAI Head Marc Groman Exits; FTC Ramps Up Privacy Focus with New CTO

Trade Group's Board on Hunt for New President

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One of the oldest digital advertising self-regulatory privacy groups, the Network Advertising Initiative, has lost a leader just as the Federal Trade Commission has named a tech consultant with a strong privacy pedigree as its chief technology officer.

NAI President and CEO Marc Groman will leave the 14-year-old trade body following a three-year stint in that position; the NAI is home to an online system that lets consumers opt out from behavioral advertising. Meanwhile, the FTC is reinforcing its focus on digital data privacy issues by bringing Ashkan Soltani into the fold.

Mr. Soltani is well known in digital privacy circles as an independent research consultant. He has a history with the FTC, having served there as staff technologist for the Division of Privacy and Identity Protection. He'll replace current CTO Latanya Sweeney, who plans to return to Harvard University; she founded and directs the school's Data Privacy Lab. Ms. Sweeney's research has homed in on de-identification and re-identification, or the ability to decipher an individual's identity despite the fact that de-identification measures have been implemented.

Mr. Groman also worked at the FTC as chief privacy officer, though not at the same time that Mr. Soltani was with the agency.

Naming Mr. Soltani to the influential role "signals how seriously the FTC takes the issue of privacy and in particular digital privacy," said Mr. Groman. Mr. Soltani "has a tremendous amount of knowledge of both technology and the digital ecosystem and I respect him for that," said Mr. Groman, who suggested that some in the digital advertising industry may not be thrilled with the FTC's appointment of Mr. Soltani.

Mr. Soltani has investigated the connections among companies and technologies distributing and using digital data for advertising and other purposes. He appeared in a March episode of 60 Minutes about the data broker industry during which he discussed online tracking technologies.

The FTC has kept its finger on the pulse of privacy issues for years, and in May called on Congress to establish new rules requiring data firms to be more transparent about their practices and to give consumers more control.

Mr. Groman, who said his contract with the NAI expires this year, will stay on with the NAI until March, assisting the organization as it seeks his successor. "I don't have a specific plan yet, but I plan to continue to work on privacy and technology but in a different capacity."

The organization's board has begun searching for a new president. "The ideal candidate is someone with passion for technology, innovation, and privacy, and who has an understanding of the central role of third parties in a vibrant ad-supported online ecosystem," said Doug Miller, chairman of the NAI Board of Directors and VP and global privacy leader for AOL.

As the FTC indicates its continued commitment to data privacy and security issues, expect the NAI to advance its own self-regulatory guidance, particularly in relation to the collection of data across devices for advertising and analytics. "We expect to open up the membership to companies and business models in that space," said Mr. Groman, noting that the planned guidelines -- deemed "Beyond Cookies" -- will be released by the end of this year or first quarter of 2015. The organization's founding members consisted of advertising networks, but since then the NAI has branched out, creating guidelines for mobile apps, for instance.