By Bill Densmore
ITE Project Director

Almost two years in the making, a new initiative backed by many major U.S. publishers might have the potential to cut down on problems with fraud and privacy abuses in the digital advertising industry.


Logos of the 27 publishers participating in TrustX

“TrustX,” unveiled on Monday by Digital Content Next, a trade association of online publishers, (and already reported by the Wall Street Journal), might fit into the broader Information Trust Exchange ecosystem dealing with identity, privacy and payments, depending how it handles the desire of users to not be “tracked.” Key TrustX features include:

  • A unique ownership structure. TrustX is a wholly owned subsidiary of Digital Content Next, which is itself a nonprofit association.  So the advertising network will have no stockholders and little incentive to make more revenue than it needs to run the system — in contrast to private for-profit digital ad exchanges.
  • An expressed commitment to user privacy and system transparency.  “Security, privacy and trust in advertising is absolutely critical to us and we would love to find a way to enable ads to not be blocked because of pro-user policies,” says Jason Kint, the CEO of DCN.
  • The participation of 27 name-brand publishers who are funding development of TrustX by prepaying for services — rather than being offered equity investments.  This appears to guarantee committed “traffic” on the network from the outset.

Old vs. new ad “ecosystem” 

Separately from DCN’s “TrustX” initiative, the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri has been studying for several years the challenge of how to manage the sharing of user identities across the web in ways that will permit “personalized” advertising and news without infringing privacy.  Among collaborators in four meetings and dozens of discussions over the last year, a core idea has emerged. That is the need to wall-off information that uniquely identifies an individual from “leaking” out into the  unsupervised realm of the opaque advertising technology world.

One participant in RJI’s Information Trust Exchange (ITE) project discussions has been John Taysom, a British investor, entrepreneur and former Reuters PLC point-person in Silicon Valley.  Taysom wrote a paper while on a sabbatical at Harvard University and was granted a U.S. patent on a technology he called “Three’s  a Crowd.”   The idea is to process profiles to “anonymize” attributes like age or address or income or family size into ranges rather than specific values before release of profiles for advertising targeting.  And ITE task-group members have also considered establishing rules for participation in the network that forbid targeting of individuals with unique ad messages without their explicit permission to do so.

TrustX comes at a time when consumers are increasingly installing so-called “ad-blocking” technology on their devices. They are doing so, surveys show, not so much because they don’t want to see any ads at all, but because they don’t want to see ads which pop, or blink, or auto-launch video, or slide in over text, creepily follow them or expensively hog bandwidth and slow the reading experience.  Some technologists are suggesting that users install instead one of a number of services which perform “tracking protection.”  This software identifies the source of an advertisement and only allows it to be shown if that service respects the user’s expressed desire not to be tracked across the web.  Consumers can send the “don’t track me” message by setting a “DNT” flag in their browser.
So it will be of interest to see how privacy watchdog groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation reaction to the TrustX announcement — and whether TrustX publishers will agree to technically respect the Do Not Track flag set in user’s browser.


‘This thing could really work . . . if’ says one expert


On the heels of Monday’s TrustX unveiling, “open source” ad-tech watcher Don Marti, a former editor of who is now a technologist and participation strategist at Mozilla Inc., reacted with a post on his personal Aloodo blog.  Marti is among ITE task group members who have been looking at how to help quality publishers improve their advertising CPMs by reducing reliance on third-party cookies and reducing user data leakage.


“Real, high-quality sites have branding advantages over generic eyeball-buying, and adfraud is becoming a mainstream concern,” Marti writes in his post, Closing the Data Gap, adding later: “If TrustX can do things right — CNAME support and EFF-flavored DNT would be solid choices — then ad blockers start to be less of a concern.”  He calls third-party tracking “a bad deal for publishers . . . .”