Brand Safety Institute Pushes 'Standardized' Consumer Identifiers

The industry organization Brand Safety Institute is pushing ad companies to replace cookies with a single “standardized” identifier that could be used to track consumers across the web and then serve them ads.

“Today, websites are littered with thousands of third party cookies from technology vendors attempting to identify consumers and their preferences across different publisher domains,” states the report, “Identifiers: It's As Easy As ABC,” issued Tuesday by the Brand Safety Institute.



“Because internet technology only allows companies to read and understand their own proprietary cookie ID, they often need to 'compare notes' with other web service providers by maintaining expensive match tables that are synced with each other before pages load, ultimately taking bandwidth from users and slowing down websites,” the report continues. “The solution? Replace the thousands of proprietary IDs with a single ID for everyone, and use that standardized ID as a shared utility the same way a homeowner uses city plumbing or an electrical grid.”

Brand Safety Institute co-founder Mike Zaneis says standardized consumer identifiers can improve people's online experiences by limiting the number of times they are served the same ad, and by cutting down on the time it takes material to render.

“User experience is a brand safety issue,” Zaneis says. “If you get the same ad 50 times, that's a negative ad experience.”

The report describes consumer identifiers as a means to “anonymously identify individual users or households.”

But privacy advocates have long argued that identifiers attached to particular users shouldn't be considered anonymous.

In recent years, that view has gained traction with some policymakers. In 2012, for instance, the Federal Trade Commission defined persistent identifiers -- including cookies -- as personal data for purposes of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. And California's new privacy law defines personal information as data that could reasonably be linked to individuals -- like cookies, persistent identifiers, browsing history and IP addresses.

The white paper also presses companies to use the Ad-ID standardized identification system for ads, and the TAG-ID (Trustworthy Accountability Group) for businesses in the ad supply chain.

“Despite the importance of such trusted identifiers, the ad industry has yet to universally embrace standards and unique identification for all elements in the advertising supply chain,” the report states. “To date, the current advertising workflow is still organized around a combination of outdated, shared, ad hoc, and in-house methods of identification in many cases, leaving room for error where trusted identification is vital.”

Earlier this year, the IAB Tech Lab and self-regulatory group Network Advertising Initiative advocated for a single identifier for consumers.

“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 wrote in September. “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.”

That plan relied on the major browser developers agreeing to create identifiers. But the browser companies have been moving in the opposite direction.

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.

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