Ad industry vet advocates public-private intervention on web identity; others warn of revenue decline; Biden advisors ponder

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Randall Rothenberg (above)
Veteran ad-industry leader calls for public-private intervention to head off disjointed approach to web privacy and identity

Separate and competitive moves by Google, Apple and multiple elements of the ad-tech industry are leading to a disjointed and uncontrolled approach to user identity and privacy — and some form of public-private intervention may be needed to help prevent fraud, a key advertising-industry leader warns.

“I think the problem with multiple localized identifiers gets us rapidly back into ‘cookie land’ — a proliferating set of uncontrolled “things” that end up, merely because of their proliferation and lack of control, being easily gamed,” says Randall Rothenberg, the executive chairman of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB).

In a wide-ranging discussion with Privacy Beat this week, Rothenberg said what’s needed is a more universal  solution. “You need to have some baseline set of allowances and forbiddances in the law,” he said, adding: “And ideally, some form of public institution, public-private institution, safe harboring NGO, something that ends up managing this on behalf of the public interest.”

The concept of a “safe harbor”, broached in a Brookings Institution paper last year, refers to an idea to define a nongovernmental institution as a rules setter for industry identity and privacy, with the law referencing the entity in practice if not in name, and stating that a regulator such as the FEderal Trade Commission, would assume operators sanctioned or audited by the entity are in compliance with law.

Rothenberg had been the CEO of the IAB since 2007, but stepped down to a part-time role last year. He has been a tenacious advocate for free-market advertising — and journalism.  He started his career as a newspaper stringer in New Jersey, free-lanced magazine articles, and authored several books and was for many years a science, technology and politics editor and business- and advertising-industry beat reporter at The New York Times before becoming IAB’s leader.

Rothenberg spoke this week in a long and deeply reflective discussion with Privacy Beat, most of it off-the-record by agreement.

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Standardize handling of open-web identity or face a big revenue decline, ad-tech leaders warn colleagues 

Publishers and the ad-tech companies they work with are facing a big business decline unless they collaborate on how they handle open-web consumer data identity in the next two years, a webinar-gathering of the Internet Advertising Bureau Tech Lab (IAB Tech Lab) was told this week.

“If we don’t get the auth[entication] solution right, there’s not going to be much of an open Internet two yars from now,” said Travis Clinger, SVP, addressability and ecosystem, for LiveRamp Holdings Inc. “We’ll be on a much, much smaller panel, maybe the same group on the panel but much smaller audience.”

Klinger was among 12 executives of ad-tech companies, and The New York Times, who spent some 90 minutes trading notes about how the industry is designing technology to replace third-party cookies, which Google’s Chrome browser developers have said they will block starting sometime in 2022. Other browsers already block them.  A focus of discussion was the IAB’s Global Privacy Platform.

In the webinar, there was a remarkable degree of expressed support for greater privacy control for users and more honesty and openness about how their data is being used in the programmatic advertising world.  “There are a number of players in the ecosystem taht are nefarious, that will probably not be able to continue to do business they way they do it,” remarked Eliza Neers, SVP, product, for Lotame Inc. “But for those of us who are above board, committed to consumer privacy, committed to standards, committed to transparency, committed to quality, it’s going to be a better solution.”

Other points made by speakers:

  • Don’t seek workarounds to privacy challenges or do the bare minimum, said Jordan Abbott, chif data ethics officer at Acxiom. “I think we have to do better. We’ve got to come together around standards. We preserve addressability by adopting standards that make privacy predictable.”   “Addressability” is the term adopted by the IAB to describe continued targeting of individuals with ad messages based on their profiles.

  • Solutions to the cookie deprecation are still in the form of interface designs or prototypes, without end-user interfaces.  Challenges include how to deal with the more and 30 different proposals for identity tracking.  “We see new identity providers popping up every day,” said Scott Manzer, co-founder of ID5.  “If we don’t do this as an industry, we are . . . out of luck. There’s not an option, we have to do something.”  Companies can’t just “sneak through,” he siad.

  • Publishers and advertisers control user data,  not ad-tech, said Klinger, and they should be able to move data back and forth with permission of their users. What’s needed, he said, are “standards about how IDs are created and the privacy rules.”

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Who should fix tech, Biden-sanctioned commission asks? Governance by government or something else?

A four-month effort of a private, independent, bipartisan commission — that has the attention of the Biden administration — is looking for help to answer fundamental questions: What do we want for the future of Internet technology and who should do what to get us there?

“The question is, is there a consensus on who should do what?” asks former Massachusetts governor and Democractic presidential candidate Duval Patrick, who co-chairs the Future of Tech Commission.  He was the first speaker on May 18 at a virtual presentation organized by Harvard University scholars, the first of at least five the commission plans around the United States.

Getting a handle on security and trust for the web is “one of the most challenging issues of our time,” added incumbent Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican. “Even getting agreement on how to create a process for solving it is an enormous undertaking.”

But that’s the intention of Patrick and his co-chairs, Common Sense Media founder/CEO James P. Steyer and former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.  They plan to release what they call “a comprehensive blueprint for action this summer” addressing safety of Americans on online platforms, consumer privacy, market competition, innovation and digital equity.

Problems and solutions highlighted during the 90-minute webinar (see TRANSCRIPT):

  • How to distinguish between information designed to manipulate vs. inform and defining the public square is “a huge challenge not just for this commission but for those that operate many of these sites as well,” said Baker. “And I don’t have a good answer for this one.”

  • The entire Internet structure needs an overhaul “so that tech companies are not able to siphon personal data and use it to leverage it to maximum advantage over consumers,” testified Joan Donovan, research director, Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and leader of its Technology and Social Change Project. “It took a whole-of-society effort to make the tobacco industry responsible for their products and I think it is going to take a whole society effort to deal with misinformation at scale.”

  • Government regulation should not be thought of as the only source of “governance” solutions, testified Jonathan Zittrain, a law professor at Harvard’s Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society.  Right now, he said, “we don’t k now what we want . . . and we don’t trust anyone to give it to us.” He touted  the idea of “information fiduciaries” as well as the Data Care Act under legislative consideration.

  • Deb Roy, executive director of the MIT Media Lab, proposed raising money for public support of “local online spaces that are designed for listening and nuanced conversations.”  He said the money could come from taxing the profits of ad-supported Internet technology platform giants.

Victoria Groves-Cardillo at Harvard’s Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government and the JFK School of Government, who is helping with the commission and it has set up a website for accepting suggestions from the public.  The next four commission “town halls” are posted on the website and run through June 16 — one in Texas, two in California and one in North Carolina. A form to submit comments is also available. ITEGA submitted this question: “A key problem for web trust is the lack of a public-benefit method for identity verification, not controlled by governments or private platforms. What options exist for creating a third way for public-benefit governance of trust, identity and privacy that can be global in ambition and scope?”

We’ve been invited to consider legislation,  regulation, public-private partnerships, citizens initiatives, areas where  business and education sectors can take the lead,” Patrick said in an audio interview with Bloomberg News. He added: “There are a lot of different issues so there are going to be a number of solutions that make the most sense.”   “There are a bunch of solutions that have already bene proposed and some we don’t know about yet we will want to take a look at . . . At the top of my list is the equity.”

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Privacy Beat is a weekly email update from the Information Trust Exchange Governing Association in service to its mission. Links and brief reports are compiled, summarized or analyzed by Bill Densmore and Eva Tucker.  Submit links and ideas for coverage to newsletter@itega.org.

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