How to Make the Data Controversy Go Away

Most Website Owners Have No Idea Who Is Collecting Data and What They're Doing With It

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Marc Kiven
Marc Kiven
Every week lately seems to bring sensational revelations in the press about online data collection and targeting practices. Whether its exposes on web beacons, privacy lawsuits filed against publishers and advertising companies, or executives being called before Congress to testify, the scary assertions lobbed against our industry are raising important questions.

Since dodging data usage and privacy concerns has been the status quo for the past 15 years, it's understandable that most web businesses would like to ignore the current fury in hopes that the storm will once again pass. However, when the head of privacy for the world's most powerful web publisher reports to Congress as she did last week that, "it is technically impossible for Yahoo! to be aware of all software or files that may be installed on a user's computer when they visit our site," it is time for everyone who runs a web business to sit up and take notice.

Online data collection is out of control. Even the largest website owners have no idea who is collecting data on their site, what it's being used for, and what the consequences are for their businesses and consumers. While tools are emerging to bring visibility to who is getting data, if we want to fix the problem, we need to go further by fundamentally changing the way that data is collected and shared.

Data management has become a real pain point for the industry. Website owners are bristling under the pressure of managing the hundreds of tracking tags on their sites that are placed there as a natural course of conducting their business. These tags, and the underlying requests for data they represent, are the blood stream of our industry, and publishers need a solution. By taking control of their site data, publishers can avoid the privacy controversy through new levels of transparency, increase their revenue with more efficient controls, and provide a better consumer experience.

A statutory driver?
One possible solution may be a new methodology for how data is collected altogether. By developing technology that enables site owners to work with any marketing, media or analytics partner they want, we, as an industry, can alleviate publisher stress and help create transparency on both ends of data transactions. Site owners will be secure in the knowledge that their data is safe, while a freedom of choice will help deliver more sustainable revenue.

The creation of one standard for the industry to connect websites and service providers while keeping consumers safe will not only make privacy concerns disappear by increasing transparency, but it will give website owners a direct hand in these compliance efforts. The FTC has made it clear that we need to give consumers more information. While the Digital Advertising Alliance and the Better Advertising Platform and the Forward I all provide a great start to this, site owners themselves need a platform to implement the controls they believe necessary to protect themselves, their customers and their data.

Standardized platforms also address the growing friction between parties doing business on the web. Data sharing and tagging are processes that every person in our industry acknowledges are pain points. Buyers, sellers and site owners all talk about how difficult it is to transact business because of the friction in these relationships. Why should it take weeks or months to work with a new partner? If the online ad industry is going to self-regulate, we need to do it together. The nature of this business will always breed competition and small miscommunications, but any technology that helps publishers own their data and reduce the headaches across the board is a welcome improvement. If new platforms can erase the fear of negative impacts to site performance or data leakage, everyone wins and industry growth accelerates.

In the end, however, it is all about the consumer and their experience. Not only are privacy and data leakage concerns becoming front and center, but the overall speed and performance of a site gets to the core of a positive customer experience. The next time you visit your favorite news site, ask yourself why it takes so much longer to load than it used to, and use Ghostery or another service to see how many tracking tags are on that site. Tags and their data streams slow sites down with multiple calls being made from each web page you visit. All these profiles being built occupy small bits of bandwidth, and these small bits add up to a fast-worsening user experience across the web.

Technology exists that will improve the consumer experience while at the same time improving the experience for those of us in the online ecosystem, whether we are website owners or those companies that service them. By working hand in hand with publishers on seamless data solutions, the industry can provide a triangle of benefit to consumers, sellers, and buyers –- who won't have to worry about data leakage, data management or consumer privacy anymore. Publishers need to take control of their data, but the industry as a whole has to be willing to help them achieve this. We can do this, and we'd better do it soon. If we don't, we won't have anyone else to blame but ourselves.

Marc Kiven is the founder of CRO of BrightTag.
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