Privacy Beat

Your weekly privacy news update.

Times Are a Changin’ When It Comes to Data Privacy

Two new developments over the last week are escalating concern for publishers, tech companies and perhaps advertisers over how their businesses are shifting.  The ongoing forcing function is the California Consumer Privacy Act, which will take effect in some form on Jan. 1.   The problem is — what form?  California’s attorney general is now concerned he may not have enough staff to enforce it. Meanwhile, Google continues to find a middle ground between its dominant ad business and taking privacy-enhancing actions that could punish competitors and invite anti-trust scrutiny. It’s using its control over the Chrome browser in this effort. Meanwhile, scrappy search engine DuckDuckGo thinks it can ride privacy and contextual advertising to greater success. All this week in Privacy Beat.  

1.  California Attorney General has Concerns About Rollout of CCPA

What it is: California Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, recently shared concerns they are working to address before the California Consumer Protection Act becomes law in January 2020 — comparing the situation to and trying to avoid the technical pitfalls of the 2013 launch of the website.

Why it matters: The law is multi-faceted and to date the biggest privacy legislation to be enacted by U.S. state or federal legislators. It could set a standard for others to follow. Becerra is worried that they do not currently have enough staff for the job and that a marred launch could further hurt public trust, as was the case with the Affordable Care Act.

“The details of this regulation will create problems and/or opportunities for news sites,” says Don Marti from Mozilla, “For example, in the common case of a news site that contains third-party tracking scripts, the details will affect the relative impact on the news site and on adtech and other third-party trackers that obtain data from that site.  When a reader chooses to do a CCPA opt out on a site, the site might simply opt them out of the site’s own data collection, or do what the reader likely intended and give them a chance to opt out of all the third parties that track them there. Any site that gives people a working opt-out experience without passing the request through to the third parties will be hurting its own future ad and subscription revenue, because the reader will not be reachable by the site, but still trackable and targetable elsewhere.”

And/But: Some are saying the law is “not well drafted”, with gray areas that sound good on paper, but will be difficult for companies to actually implement. Lobbyists and lawyers are pushing back on certain aspects and all amendments must be passed by September. Publishers will have a lot shorter timeline to implement the changes than they had for GDPR. The rest of the country is watching, with nine other states currently considering their own versions of the law.

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2. Google Announces New Privacy Initiatives

What it is: At their annual developer conference this week Google announced new privacy features across their products to give consumers’ greater ability to see and control what data is being tracked about them.

Why it Matters: Facebook and Google have both announced new privacy initiatives in the past week and called for more federal regulation of data privacy. The moves seem aimed at building more consumer trust in the companies, but the implications for publishers and the broader ad industry are still to be fully seen.

CEO of Admiral, Dan Rua commented on the news, “These moves by Google Chrome and the other browsers are directionally correct for privacy, and hasten the need for publishers to grow first-party visitor relationships.  For the first couple decades of the Internet, it was sufficient for pubs to create content surrounded by ads leveraging 3rd-party data/cookies alongside — with zero relationship between publisher and visitor. We’re entering an Age of Consent for the Internet, meaning consumers (and browsers as their “agent”) taking more control.  Therefore, all publishers need a horizontal strategy and platform for Visitor Relationship Management (VRM), growing visitor revenue in lock-stop with growing stronger 1st-party visitor relationships. There will be winners and losers, so playing offense with VRM and 1st-party relationships is key to leading on privacy and growing long-term visitor revenue, instead of playing defense against the browsers.”

And/But: Industry experts have noted that the proposed changes will not hurt Google’s business. Instead it may strengthen it, being that 3rd parties could be squeezed out. Is that an unfair advantage? Will this raise antitrust issues? How will the changes affect advertisers and publishers ability to serve ads? We’ll be watching this story as more details emerge.

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3. Google and its open-source Chrome project are starting to lower the boom on third-party tracking cookies and go after so-called “fingerprinting” technologies.

What it is:  In a pair of May 9 blog posts the search-and-advertising giant said it would be making changes in the Chrome browser “so that developers need to explicitly specify which cookies are allowed to work across websites — and could be used to track users.”

Chrome product manager Ben Galbraith and engineering director Justin Schuch continued: “This change will enable users to clear all such cookies while leaving single domain cookies unaffected, preserving user logins and settings. It will also enable browsers to provide clear information about which sites are setting these cookies, so users can make informed choices about how their data is used.”

Why it Matters: Google Ads & Commerce Senior VP Prabhakar Raghavan weighed in in a related post at the Google Ads Blog. ” … (T)he ad-supported internet is at risk if digital advertising practices don’t evolve to reflect people’s changing expectations around how data is collected and used.” He continued: “Our experience shows that people prefer ads that are personalized to their needs and interests—but only if those ads offer transparency, choice, and control. However, the digital advertising ecosystem can be complex and opaque, and many people don’t feel they have enough visibility into, or control over, their web experience.”

And/But: Raghavan also said the Chrome browser will also be engineered to “more aggressively restrict fingerprinting across the web” — a technology used by advertising networks that are not able to uniquely identify a user with traditional third-party cookie tech.

“Google doesn’t use fingerprinting for ads personalization because it doesn’t allow reasonable user control and transparency. Nor do we let others bring fingerprinting data into our advertising products,” said Raghavan.

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4. Trade Desk’s Jeff Green Tells AdExchanger Chrome Tracking Restrictions are No Big Deal

What it is: Google’s announcement last week that the Chrome browser will begin later year to offer blocking of some third-party cookies is seen by one ad-tech leader as lightweight in terms of impact.  

Why it Matters: The industry blog AdExchanger quoted The Trade Desk CEO Jeff Green as saying Google is facing high regulatory scrutiny in how it can change Chrome’s operation. Also Green told AdExchange that he thinks his company effort to become the default advertising cook is in his words, “close to checkmate” against competitive efforts.

And/But: AdExchanger’s James Hercher writes: “Many expected Chrome would adopt a policy similar to Safari’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention, which automatically blocks most third-party tracking and ad targeting. The actual Chrome policy update…is more innocuous, giving users more options to restrict cookies but not launching default cookie-blocking standards.

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5. Contextual advertising is better for privacy and profit, says DuckDuckGo’s founder-CEO as he urges regulation

What it Is: In U.S. Senate testimony on March 3, the founder-CEO of the alternate search engine DuckDuckGo says contextual advertising works in a privacy environment and Congress should force an end behavioral targetting.

“If Congress forced the digital advertising industry to return to its roots in contextual advertising, that would allow companies to remain profitable, or even become more profitable — all without the unintended consequences of behavioral advertising,” DuckDuckGo’s Gabriel Weinberg testified.

Why it Matters: The Pennsylvania-based search engine says it doesn’t create profiles of its search users and only serves contextual rather than targetted advertising.

“And we are not alone,” Weinberg said in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “For example, in response to GDPR, when the New York Times in Europe switched from behavioral advertising to contextual advertising, it reported an increase in revenue. And just last week, Business Insider reported the Washington Post was looking into making a similar change.”

Weinberg also told the senators that a Harris Poll found data privacy is the most pressing issue on Americans’ minds for two years in a row. He said well-drafted privacy legislation could spur more competition and innovation in digital advertising.

And/But: The privately held DuckDuckGo had substantially more than $25 million in revenues in 2018, Weinberg said. In December it purchased from Google the domain name “DUCK.COM” for an undisclosed sum. It’s map and address-related searches are powered by Apple Maps.

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Fake news suffocating real news? More and more advertising money is being funneled away from legitimate news websites and to click-bait ad farm sites that spread hyper-sensational, misleading, and sometimes outright false news, according to a new report from the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), a coalition focused on assessing the damaging impacts of disinformation.…/ad-tech-a-solution-for-d…/…/…/GDI_Report_Screen_AW.pdf…/fake-news-advertising-networ…/

Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld seeks Digital Platform Act and a look to the past for reigning in the behavior of platforms.

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