It was called Gator, and it had every publisher rushing to get out of the water, onto the shores, and to the offices of their respective municipalities to see just how to rid themselves of this menace that was eating their fish and scaring their children.
The IAB stood before the wide-eyed crowds to assure everyone that the waters would be made safe once again and that there was nothing to worry about. In late August of last year, Robin Webster, then CEO of the IAB, played the part of Chief Brody and assured the citizens of Amityville that it would soon be safe to get back in the water. Lawsuits were filed.
But even Quint and Matt Hooper couldn't catch this beast, and three months later, at the end of November, the IAB and Gator were trying to make nice with each other.
The Gator question has raised a lot of interesting issues and debates these last few months. My colleagues Tom Hespos and, most notably Tig Tillinghast, have covered the subject well in their columns as of late.
Questions of propriety, shameless business practices, and out-right inquiries into the matter of good and evil have been raised throughout the industry.
But to me Gator.com and what it does raises a more important question, a question transcendent of practical matters of content filtering or banner targeting or real estate hijacking. It is a fundamental question that, if answered properly, may help in moving this industry forward in a way we've only imagined.
Is Gator bad? Is Gator good? Does it violate the ethics of unspoken social contracts? What software like Gator challenges the industry to do is rethink the notion of impression ownership.
Just who OWNS the impression being generated and the rights to use that space as the owner sees fit?
Is it the publisher, who incurs the expense of developing content and serving it to the user when their browser requests it? Is it the advertisers who are paying for the right to occupy space within that content and thereby have access to the user when that user's browser requests the content? Is it the user, who by their own action creates the very real estate the advertiser occupies and without whom the page would not exist nor the advertising found on it?
Let us think about this in terms of Print. Not because that has a clean analogy, but because, as a thought experiment, it might help to explain how I'm thinking about this question.
If I buy a magazine, I own that magazine and, for all intents and purposes, am the lone audience for its pages. Only I glean the table of contents to see what is going to be inside. Only I thumb through its pages to get from article, page 1, to article, continuation on page 68. Only I see or don't see the advertisements adjacent to those article pages. If I chose to rip out every ad page before I read through my magazine, I can. If I chose to stare for 5 minutes at every ad page, I can. If I chose to have someone else, in exchange for some demographic information, come to my house, go through my magazine, and remove the ads already there and replace them for me, I can. Because I bought the book. It is MY book; content I have chosen of my own free will and paid money to have access to.
See where I'm going with this?
Online, I have not done this. I am not helping to subsidize the cost of the content produced for my choosing nor the system by which it is delivered. Now, I'm not saying that the price I pay for an issue of a magazine covers the cost of producing it, but it is a factor. And it gives me certain rights over the use of that content delivery vehicle. I am not allowed to resell this delivery vehicle with any changes I may have made to it, but I can, for my own purposes, do things with it or to it that affect the way "I" see it.
But online, I have not paid for access in that fashion. Though I am responsible for creating the impression that is ultimately the real estate, inventory, or whatever else you want to call it, what I am doing is incurring cost to the publisher. Though this raises an interesting solipsistic quandary -- not unlike "If Helen Keller fell in a forest, would she make a sound?" -- I think that ultimately it cannot be said that the user, in the instance of online, is the owner of the impression generated.
Though I do not see Gator as the anti-Christ by any means, I do think that its existence and success, and applications like it, benefit more from existing in a box with Schrodinger's cat; a kind of quantum uncertainty, rather than on fundamental principles of proper business practices, moral capitalism, or any other form of theoretic solidity.
The answer to the question of impression ownership is likely to be what shapes the debate of how Gator and Gator-like applications should be dealt with. And it may just be what shapes the future of online advertising at all.