By Bill Densmore and Don Marti



Web sites that depend on reaching users with trustworthy content are part of what we’ll call  “Team Signal.” They are in a contest with Surveillance Marketing sites for the same marketing budgets.

One big problem that reputable local newspapers face is that their readers are also available to advertisers through other channels. News-industry consultant Greg Swanson explained it recently in this way:

All of the conversations on the newspaper side have been focused on how can we join the advertising technology ecosystem. For example, how can a daily newspaper site in Bismarck, North Dakota deliver targeted advertising to a higher-value soccer mom? And none of the newspapers them have considered the fact that when they join that ecosystem they are enabling spam sites, fraudulent sites – enabling those sites to get a higher CPM rate by parasitically riding on the data collected from the higher-value newspaper sites.   So the consequence of sharing all of our data together — even though the appeal is you can have meaningfully-large cohort targets – it’s that a big portion of the sites the ads are then served to are just  clickbait sites. You don’t have to play that way if you had a slightly smaller garden — where the user is aware of who was tracking them and says: “That’s OK, I’m am willing to share my data to get that experience.” All of the valuable tracking information is coming from high-value sites and I hadn’t thought about that part of the equation before.

Thus any advertising buyer can go to a demand-side advertising platform (DSP) and buy user eyeballs in a given local news market without having to use the high-quality local paper.  That’s because the newspaper is allowing advertising networks to “cookie” their users and therefore identity them for future ad targeting.  There is a big opportunity for high-quality news sites  to make better-performing, more user/brand acceptable, advertising, and present the advertising to their own users, and users within a privacy-by-design ITE ad network.

Walter Mossberg, one of the most respected technology reporters, also experienced the probably of what we might call predatory user theft on his side, ReCode.  He described it this way:

“About a week after our launch, I was seated at a dinner next to a major advertising executive. He complimented me on our new site’s quality and on that of a predecessor site we had created and run, I asked him if that meant he’d be placing ads on our fledgling site. He said yes, he’d do that for a little while. And then, after the cookies he placed on Recode helped him to track our desirable audience around the web, his agency would begin removing the ads and placing them on cheaper sites our readers also happened to visit. In other words, our quality journalism was, to him, nothing more than a lead generator for target-rich readers, and would ultimately benefit sites that might care less about quality.”

Here is the research proposed by the Information Trust Exchange Governing Association:

Phase One


  1. Use a DSP to start buying a small number of low-priced ads that claim to reach a Test User Demographic in your market that you have specified for the buy. Document cost and reach in time. This will establish baseline numbers for problematic (data-leakage-based or fraudulent) ad inventory.  The call to action for this campaign doesn’t matter as much as data collection.
  2. Use analytics to determine how many of your site’s users — registered and anonymous — are using any ad-blocking or tracking-protection browser extensions.


  1. Test the news site viewed from a tracking-protection enabled user devices, ensuring that critical functionality works and that first-party ads and DNT-respecting third-party ads are available to tracking-protected users.
  2. Install or update “turn off your ad blocker” messages to users of non-preferred ad-blocking services, asking them to switch to one or more publisher-preferred tracking-protection tools (such as or PrivacyBadger).  Explain value to the user (and the publisher).
  3. After 30, 60, 90 days, use site analytics to determine how many of users within the research Test User Demographic have become “tracking protected.”  Repeat the ad buy described in Step No. 1, above, and compare results for impact of tracking protection on third-party remnant ad pricing and reach.
  4. Inform all users about getting protected. Test bonus offers for tracking-protected users.


  1. Collect data about tracking protection adoption, and reconcile with the ad data collected from the beginning. If the numbers don’t match up (and they’re unlikely to) you have hard evidence that competing ads have a fraud problem.

Phase Two

  1. Link publisher user-profile data, with standardized attributes, to Information Trust Exchange proof-of-concept prototype for creation of privacy-by-design, anonymous interest cohorts shared across a nonprofit consortium. The result: System for ethical ad targeting to groups of users of high-signal publisher sites, without third-party cookies or tracking. (See “Mapping the ITE relationships: An overview”, below.)

Opportunity summary

Client side

(user browser/device)

Server side


Make low-value ads harder Layer 1: block connections to untrustworthy trackers
Layer 2: don’t persist cookies and unsafe state
Layer 3: clean up problematic state (layers)
Safe ad blocker warnings: don’t block privacy tools as ad blockers.

Tracking warnings: Inform users about alternatives so that they can configure in-browser tracking protection.
Reverse tracking walls: offer bonus content to protected users.

Make high-value ads easier Attribute assignment with user control
Cross-site attribute sharing with user control
Information Trust Exchange attribute sharing
Safe web analyticsFuture: federated paywalls


Don Marti is a former editor of Linux World and an expert on privacy web advertising and user-data management. He currently works for Mozilla. Bill Densmore is a principal of the Information Trust Exchange project.