The Monster Ball Of Privacy

Surely you know about the monsters in your closet. For consumers, these hairy guys are you -- the advertiser or the agency wielding sinister ad tracking and targeting voodoo. For you, the lurking monsters are the consumer privacy bill, to be introduced shortly by Congressman (D-Virginia) Rick Boucher -- a sign of the mounting, irreversible reality of more governmental control over our industry.

There are mixed opinions on how restrictive the Boucher bill actually will be. The rumor is the bill requires an opt-out consumer mechanic on all advertising; doubters worry that it will require an opt-in principle, a more severe standard that would be treacherous to our $25 billion industry.

Besides that bill, there are several things happening simultaneously that effectively transport our industry to a whole new era in which, no matter what, we take greater control of our part in privacy concerns. That is, if we finally get ahead of things by implementing meaningful self-regulation.



What Else?

We expect a financial reform bill expanding the powers of the Federal Trade Commission to pursue crooked advertisers and shady data peddlers, as well as other companies who enabled whatever questionable business practices were deployed. In "Policing the Online Ad Industry," Mike Shields explains the historic context of this revived rule-making power: "[This] is known as the Administrative Procedure Act, rule-making clout the agency had briefly in the 1970s until it was stripped away. More recently, the FTC has been faced with slow, Byzantine procedures when it wants to establish new enforcement rules, which [FTC Chairman] Jon Leibowitz said hinders its efforts, especially in the fast-moving tech space."

This administrative power might have a chilling effect. We are, after all, doing business in an industry whose ecosystem is fed by partnering, alliances and co-opitition. So, if we mobilize our fear, what are we in fact doing to step up to the new era?

The Coalition Gets Current

For one, there has been the beefing up of the National Advertising Review Council, which was founded by major trade associations and the Council of Better Business Bureaus to foster truth and accuracy in national advertising through voluntary self-regulation. Flashing forward, the NARC issued an RFP late last fall to determine who will be deciding infrastructure, and what the consumer-facing mechanics of self-regulation will be. This includes how, exactly, do consumers opt out, and know they have done so? How do they report privacy invasions? How do they -- and the brands doing the buying, after all -- know who is doing the tracking online? And what happens with this data? In short, all of this amounts to our industry facilitating transparency.

Amid the Talk, Agencies are Walking

There is a prevailing myth that agencies are doing nothing to get simpatico with the monster. The same voices hollering that there are forces out to destroy our industry holler that agencies as whole are sitting idle. Over the past few months, I have reviewed and discovered a whole roster of industry players getting on board with the hard work that has to be done. In fact, there's an entire suite of agency entities participating and driving foundational readiness: Havas Digital; Omnicom Agency Trading Desk; WPP's Kantar; GroupM Interaction - and numerous others. Rather than spending time broadcasting their efforts in industry leadership circles, they seem to be focused in the trenches on buckling down and getting something very complicated, very right.

Executing self-regulation is complicated. As Havas Digital CEO Ed Montes will tell you, "There is a minutiae of execution that not everyone realizes." Self-regulation has implications for creative standards, for campaign management, and for clearly articulating comprehensive tech opt-out info. Thus, much time is spent educating internally, revisiting processes and standards, so that the machine will be ready to service the new environment.

On the theme of creating order amid complexity, many agencies have been participating in initiatives being driven by the strategically launched start-up company called Better Advertising. This company entered the scene from a deep stealth, just as the FTC issued its initial guidelines - to monitor those guidelines. In fact, the company has responded to the NARC RFP to monitor compliance.

Within its Design Partner program, agency partners are participating in a phased roll-out, beginning with the testing of the i-icon. The icon -- an "I" in a circle -- will appear as an overlay on ads. Better Advertising also will debut a landing page that includes information about targeting and instructions for opting out. This is all intended to show that self-regulation can work, and to provide companies with real reporting on how they are doing in complying.

There's so much to consider and cover on privacy. But, as bills and guidelines are presented and NARC makes its call on who will be powering the mechanics of self-regulation, one thing is clear: the agencies are in it. This show of force is good news. And, as far as the monsters, I think of it as I did when I was a kid. All you've got to do -- all we've got to do as an industry -- is flip on the lights.

3 comments about "The Monster Ball Of Privacy".
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  1. Eric Porres from MeetingScience, March 29, 2010 at 2:48 p.m.

    Kendall, good commentary. We psyched to see a company like Better Advertising put forth a viable regulatory and compliance platform. Naysayers beware: technology in the hands of the right people can produce mutually assured outcomes. Let's not throw the digital baby out with the bathwater either -- offline companies have been merging/matching/appending offline consumer data for decades. You may change computers and wipe cookies, but chances are you live in the same place for a long time (certainly longer than the average 90 day lifespan of a cookie file). In the interim, we are hopeful that other companies like ours will decide to invest in technology that provides consumers with transparency and choice via a simple preferences manager (see:

    Eric L. Porres
    Chief Marketing Officer

  2. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, March 30, 2010 at 2:56 a.m.

    If someone has more detailed information on how the Constitution would be trashed by this, please explain. Mandating Opt-Out
    for For-Profit Email Solicitations doesn't seem so bad because one can argue that it becomes harassment if people want such "commercial free speech" to stop (as long as the end-viewer has been allowed to see and complain about that which is supposed to have offended them). The problem is that too many would go a step further and say that people should be legally allowed to opt-out of non-commercial communication which would violate personal free speech which is a much more valuable thing.

    What Constitutional rights are the Democrats proposing to violate this time?

  3. Jason Cutter from Triad, April 5, 2010 at 4:56 p.m.

    We all know that the $25B in online advertising isn't going anywhere regardless of what happens with this piece of legislation. Behavioral Targeting is something that is leaned on in competing with solid content/contextual relevance of other publishers when in a disadvantageous position on either or both. If BT were to go away completely (not going to happen) ad networks would have to be more conscientious as to their aquisitions & internal content development. They may have to ditch a few sites in order to focus on core which would also help the digital inventory debacle - supply well out-numbering demand driving down market CPMs. Personally speaking, I represent a niche so it does not matter to me. To be fair, I may be panicking a bit if I worked for a network or technology provider.

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