Tech Firms Launch Privacy Tools That Can Block Mobile Ads

Industry Self-Reg Group Has Yet To Agree On Guidelines, So Evidon and Truste Take the Initiative

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Don't like ads on your phone? Two tech companies allied with the online ad industry are offering new ways to control them.

Evidon, one of two providers of the Ad Choices icon -- the tiny blue symbol shown in behaviorally-targeted display ads -- has just begun delivering the icon and the opt-out system behind it into mobile app ads served by the Jumptap and Tapad networks. More mobile app ad partners are lined up to do the same.

Evidon mobile icon
Evidon mobile icon

Meanwhile, Evidon's rival Truste has allowed people to opt-out of behavioral ad targeting in mobile apps since June 2012. It recently upgraded its system to work when in-app ads are purchased through real time bidding, so advertisers bidding on ad placements know before they make a bid that a user cannot be targeted using behavioral data. Mobile ad exchange Nexage and Tapad are initial partners.

Today Evidon's app is available in the Apple store and will hit the Play store for Android phones within a week. Truste's technology does not require an app download.

In doing so, both companies are jumping ahead of the Digital Advertising Alliance -- the industry coalition running the behavioral ad and data collection privacy initiative – which has been slow to adapt these principles to mobile. The latest estimated time of arrival for those guidelines: "this spring -- a few weeks to a couple of months," said Stu Ingis, counsel to the DAA, noting the group is "still working on the substance."

"That is why we didn't wait, and why we just started to build," said Kevin Trilli, VP product at Truste.

The Federal Trade Commission along with states including California are cracking down on mobile data collection and pushing for greater mobile consumer privacy controls. It's clear in order to exhibit its commitment to its privacy efforts, the industry must move its behavioral data collection privacy program to the phone, where more and more information is gathered every day.

Edward Kozek, head of engineering and product development at Evidon, said team and their clients didn't want to wait any longer to launch its Ad Control app, either. "Our clients, even non-clients, came to us out of the blue. We had sort of shelved this project waiting for the [DAA] guidelines," he said. "At least six clients last fall or winter" requested the icon system for app ads, he continued. "So, we thought, 'OK, it's game on.'"

Yet, despite the growing importance of mobile privacy, the fact that the DAA has yet to settle on guidelines has thrown a wrench in the self-regulatory process. Because there's no official word from the DAA, participants have no industry-imposed rules on whether opting-out would simply prevent participating mobile ad networks from serving behaviorally-targeted ads in apps or go further by preventing collection of some forms of data.

Also at issue is the fact that most consumers don't make distinctions between location data and other information collected via mobile apps, and government regulators and legislators may not either. So, while device location data can be collected by apps and used to target ads, there's no DAA guideline determining whether an advertiser could aim a geo-targeted ad in a mobile app to someone who's opted out using the Truste or Evidon systems.

The DAA has not endorsed these services yet -- another wrinkle. "We don't have mobile principles yet so we are not in a position to endorse; what would we be endorsing against?" said Mike Zaneis, SVP and general counsel of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a member of the DAA coalition.

What's holding up the guidelines? It's not entirely clear but technical hurdles may be part of it. Because cookies are not typically the identifier of choice in the mobile app environment, where multiple types of device identifiers are employed, opting-out from mobile ads in apps has a much more permanent effect than on the desktop. Online, if cookies are cleared, an opt-out cookie gets trashed, re-enabling tracking and targeting.

The ad industry certainly would prefer that people accept more-targeted ads which can be priced higher and arguably work better than less targeted ones. Having a persistent opt-out from mobile app ads makes it far less likely that a device owner will rejoin the ranks of targetable consumers anytime soon. It's one reason Evidon is working on adding an opt-in to its product.

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