Hey Web Freeloaders: Your Lunch Is Not Free

Don't Want to Pay for Content and Don't Want Advertisers to Collect Data? Get Ready for Some of Your Favorite Sites to Go Under -- Seriously

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Ran Cohen
Ran Cohen

If users can block cookies that help publishers pay the bills, publishers, in return, should restrict or limit users from accessing free content.

I never thought I would be an advocate for the digital advertising industry, but the recent debate and hype surrounding "do not track" pushed me into action. What concerned me most was that important decisions were being made based on partial information. Even more alarming, the people making those decisions had the wrong motivation.

Like any citizen of the 21st century, I am concerned with online privacy, especially when it comes to how that information is used. But I find it absurd to scapegoat third-party tracking. If the policy makers who are pushing "do not track" are genuinely interested in protecting privacy, and are not after a quick political gain, I would expect them to take a broader approach.

Honestly, I am very concerned that employers can spy on their employees and monitor their web activities. I am very concerned that my work or private emails can be monitored by certain government agencies. And, I am very concerned that there are video surveillance cameras everywhere I go. But I am less concerned when I receive an ad for vacation destinations while I am planning my holiday, or when I get a reminder that the new season of my favorite show is starting this week.

It is crucial to understand the effects of a widely accepted or mandated "do not track" policy. Contrary to what many people think, the results will not improve privacy on the web, but the policy will change targeting methodology. The new targeting methodology will create a significant barrier for entry to new and small companies and a disproportional advantage to giants like Google and Facebook.

Facebook and Google will continue to target people based on their profile and interests, leveraging the need to log into their services and hence identifying yourself in a consistent manner. Other providers of log-in-based services with a significant user base will benefit from the same capabilities. The net result will be a collapse of a vibrant and innovative industry and a power shift to a small number of giant players.

But putting aside the question of favoring big players like Google and Facebook, it's important to ask, what "do not track" is fighting against? When I moved to the U.S. I was in need of a credit card. I applied for many different cards, but couldn't be approved because I lacked a credit history. It took me a while to find a relevant card and build my credit score. Today, like many of you, my mailbox is often packed with irrelevant, extravagant and wasteful credit card offers that typically contain personal information relating to my finances as well as my home address. I would have welcomed credit card offers over the web, which could have delivered those same offers in a timely, relevant, and relatively private manner. I also would have gladly skipped the junk mail.

Is it completely wrong to deliver a diapers ad to a new mother? Would she prefer to be exposed to non-relevant ads?

It is possible to be responsible with user data and create value to all parties involved including the end users. The key is being very strict about not using personally identifying information. We will benefit more as an industry and as consumers if the focus is placed on clearly articulating the methods and rules that protect users from companies that leverage their personally identifying information.

Unfortunately, there is a misunderstanding with the way things work when it comes to "third-party cookies." However, that misunderstanding can be clarified. To be clear, when it comes to cookie-based targeting, a user is not identified as a specific person, but as a part of an aggregate.

This is no different from standard digital advertising or offline advertising. When you browse the boxing section of ESPN, you are in the group of users interested in boxing and you will most probably receive an ad targeted to this bucket. The same thing happens with cookie-based targeting. You are part of this group, and as a member you will receive boxing-related ads. So, what is the big deal if you receive a relevant ad when you are not on the boxing site?

Last but not least, we must consider the impact of the reduced effectiveness of ads. The web content that you consumed so happily is provided to you mostly at no cost. This content is sponsored and underwritten by ads, and if the value of the ads drop due to an inability to target properly, several things may happen:

  1. Some publishers will go out of business and the content and services they provide will no longer be available.
  2. Some will have to compensate by increasing the number of ads delivered to you in every page, most of which will not be relevant to you.
  3. Punch the monkey type ads -- that distract you and try to grab your attention will be deployed more often to get you to respond.
  4. A significant, innovative segment of the industry using cookie tracking will go under.
  5. A few (The giants) will get stronger and monopolize the market.

Blocking the option to track will also result in an inability to monitor frequency. Hence, you can expect over frequency for ads that are not relevant for you and under frequency for ads that might be of interest to you at the right time.

I will admit, the online advertising industry should have been -- and should be -- doing more. Behavioral targeting has been around for a while. However, the IAB and the leading members did not do enough. We should be subject to clearer guidelines. Third-party tracking technologies should be certified. In the past, the IAB proved that it was able to effectively certify technologies. Ad serving, for example, was once a very controversial topic. But with the creation of The Media Rating Council, counting methodologies had clear certification guidelines, which addressed concerns about ad serving technologies. The same thing is possible with third-party cookie technologies, which can be certified and monitored. Our eco-system is large enough to be able to afford that.

I am all for protecting privacy, but I am against the demonization of digital advertising. The option to opt out from cookie tracking should be clearly available and easily enabled for users, but a note will be made to those users that the result might be that some publishers will restrict or limit their access to free content. Meaning - No more free lunches.

The solution cannot be a technical one; it should be much broader in its scope, and it must consider the negative effects of a limited, half-baked proposal like "do not track." We must stand up against the misinformation and help educate all involved, explaining how the current proposal falls far short of achieving the noble aim of protecting users' privacy.

Ran Cohen is co-founder and VP-product at Legolas Media, an audience "futures" marketplace.
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