Transparency Is The Only Policy

Just when you thought that the roll-out of industry self-policing efforts was going to stave off digital advertising regulations, last week's panel on the topic at OMMA AdNets certainly suggested the topic is as lively and undecided as ever. We have the video of most of the session available now at UStream.  

To ID the participants: We had as moderator our own legal, policy and regulations expert/reporter Wendy Davis "grilling the mall cops" about the roll-out of self-regulatory regimens. And then we had a who's who in the field, from left to right after Wendy: Justin Brookman, Senior resident fellow at the Center for Democracy; Fran Maier, President and Chair of TRUSTe; Scott Meyer, CEO, Better Advertising; and George Pappachen, Chief Privacy Officer, Kantar/WPP.  

Meyer's Better Advertising group was chosen by the consortium of ad and better business associations to implement the online ad labeling and consumer information system that is starting to appear in display campaigns. He said that the new icon signaling consumers that their data is being collected is being pushed now to billions of ad impressions a month. So we are starting to see the program move into the wild at last.  



Brookman, who was in the New York State Attorney General's Office and led the prosecution of early spyware cases, argued that some kind of baseline or "backstop" law is needed regardless of the effectiveness of self-policing. At least having a law requiring all data collectors to offer opt-out would give the legal system recourse against the outliers who were not participating in the self-regulatory programs.

Interestingly, both Maier and Meyer did not seem averse to some form of backstop law to handle the bad actors. Pappachen remains wary of government intervention. He pointed out that on the one hand, letting the FTC regulate digital privacy introduces uncertainty in the market because it leaves the regulators a good deal of discretion. Legal measures, however, tend to be frozen in time and not flexible enough to handle the evolving business models of online marketing. Worse, he said, "Political beasts are given to politics." 

But the most interesting point that seemed to come through from Pappachen, Maier and Meyer was the universal support for maximum transparency throughout the system. "Transparency should be the model" across all platforms, Pappachen said, because uneven treatment or policies across the platforms only encourages bad actors. If you carve out one platform for special scrutiny, it incentivizes the less ethical marketers to seek the points of least resistance.  

Meyer was emphatic on the point that publishers and ad networks should not fear transparency. He said that we now have solid evidence that offering people ample opportunity to opt out of targeting and data collection does not gut the user base. This is the point I appreciated most. "We have served 3 billion impressions [with the privacy icon] and saw no change in response rates and little opt out and improved response to brands," he said. 

In other words, transparency is a selling point. It is a way for brands to engender trust rather than risk suspicion.  In fact, he warned that mealy-mouthed attempts to hide what a marketer is doing online with data runs the risk of breaching trust. "Consumers have better tools than the publisher or network right now," he said. If companies are keeping secrets from consumers because they are afraid that it will appear suspect to the user, then perhaps the company should reconsider doing it at all.  

"We have the opportunity to be up front with consumers about this," Maier added.  

Perhaps what the industry needs next is more research and hard convincing numbers on how forthrightness about data collection enhances brand image. 

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