IAB Tech Lab Fleshes Out Plan To Target People Without Cookies

The IAB Tech Lab on Thursday began fleshing out its plan to change the way ad companies track consumers online.

In the world envisioned by the IAB Tech Lab, ad companies would move from a system that relies on cookies to one that relies on “identifiers” provided by browser developers.

The IAB Tech Lab and self-regulatory group Network Advertising Initiative say in a new 13-page proposal that a single identifier would speed up the web by “supplanting thousands of proprietary cookie-based identifiers and 'trackers,'” while also giving consumers long-lasting privacy controls.

“A standardized user token in browser environments would eliminate the need for 'cookie syncing' across 1000s of proprietary cookies, a process that noticeably impacts consumer experience via increased page load times, and introduces 100s of third parties onto sites where they do not need to be present,” the groups write. “This standardized token would not need to log or store any data itself outside of consumer preference signals, and would be designed solely as a persistent mechanism to store, communicate, and adhere to consumer preferences.”

The groups acknowledge that this plan will only work if the major browser developers -- including Mozilla and Apple -- agree to create identifiers.

At this point, it seems unlikely those companies would do so, particularly given their recent moves to thwart tracking. This summer, Mozilla's Firefox began automatically blocking tracking cookies that follow people from site to site, and Google said its Chrome browser will soon allow consumers to automatically block those kinds of cookies.

Apple's Safari has long blocked tracking cookies by default. The company reportedly has already indicated that it isn't interested in the IAB Tech Lab's proposal.

It's worth noting that browser manufacturers already developed a mechanism for consumers to protect their privacy preferences -- do-not-track headers. Those headers allowed people to communicate that they didn't want ad-tech companies to follow them around the web.

The ad industry self-regulatory group Digital Advertising Alliance initially said it would require members to honor the headers, but later reversed course.

Before the ad industry abandoned the do-not-track effort, it participated in contentious talks with privacy advocates, computer scientists and academics about how to interpret the signals. The industry was never able to agree with watchdogs about basic privacy principles -- including what type of data could be collected from people who turned on a do-not-track signal.

The ad industry's current self-regulatory standards say companies should stop serving targeted ads to consumers who opt out. But the industry's codes don't generally give consumers control over whether their web-browsing data is collected.

At this point, it's not known what privacy options the IAB Tech Lab and NAI envision for consumers. The groups float some potential requirements -- including giving consumers the ability to control whether data can be used for “measurement or personalized advertising” -- but say they are putting off discussion of those issues for now.

Questions about consumers' privacy rights “are too important to consider without additional perspective (outside our industry) at the table,” the groups write.

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