Are the Ad Networks Missing the Boat on Privacy? Thoughts on Promoting Universal Ad Preference Management in Addition to Universal Opt-out

Long before the privacy debate erupted in its current form, Google has had a fairly simple straight forward tool called Ad Preferences Manager, which allows users to adjust the types of ads that Google serves them by changing the preferences stored in Google's tracking cookie. Unfortunately, most people have no clue what the Ad Preferences Manager is or what it means to them, and Google has done little to change this fact until recently. The fact that Google has not done more to gradually educate its millions of users on the positive aspects of controlling the ads that they see online represents a serious missed opportunity to shift the privacy debate away from "tracking" users online and towards empowering web users to take control of the ads that they see.

Despite the lack of marketing and consumer education around the Ad Preferences Manager, I actually think that it represents the best model for the kind of tool that the advertising industry should be providing and promoting to web users. It is simple and easy to use, and it promotes the positive side of controlling the ads that one sees as opposed to just promoting tracking opt-outs, which would kill the online ad industry, if adopted en masse. I find it strange and troubling that the industry has rallied around promoting opt-outs without simultaneously promoting the advantages of setting one's preferences and receiving more targeted advertising. I completely respect every web user's right to opt-out of being cookied and anonymously tracked, however, if the industry promotes only the benefits of opt-out without simultaneously providing the tools for users to opt-in to more personalized and meaningful advertising, then many users will simply opt-out considering the benefits of a more personalized relationship to advertising. Further, the ad networks are missing a golden opportunity to ask individuals directly what types of ads they want to see and deliver on these preferences.

There are a number of issues related to providing a universal ad preferences manager, but it seems that the benefit far out way the difficulties. The first problem is that Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, and other ad networks have not yet decided on the standard classification system that could be used to define the ad preferences that a user could choose from. Google, which recently bested Yahoo, as the number one provider of display advertising could push the industry to adopt something like its classification system, but the reality is that in display advertising, Google commands nothing like its 65% of the search market, so it has less influence and less ability to get other parties to follow its lead. The solution here is that the various large ad networks need to come to an agreement on unifying the categories on which online advertising is targeted and agree to abide by these user preferences when serving ads.

The second problem is that cookies only persist in web browsers for a limited amount of time; either until the you clear your cookies, upgrade, or changes the browser you are using. The ability to keep your ad preferences stored across all browsers and devices that you use would require logging into a service that keeps track of your preferences. Google's Advertising Cookie Opt-out Plugin does exactly this by permanently saving an opt-out cookie in your browser that persists even when you clear all other cookies. However, Google offers no plug-in that allows you to permanently store your ad preferences despite the fact that this would be a relatively straightforward modification of the current opt-out plugin. In my view, this is a missed opportunity for Google to both offer web users more personalized advertising and an alternative to tracking opt-outs, while at the same time leading the industry to a more sustainable model that gives web users direct control of the ads they see.

Another issue is that the whole privacy debate has moved from the space of technological innovation to one of legal wrangling where very powerful interests are out to gain competitive advantage through the legal outcomes in Washington D.C.. This does not create a particularly great climate for innovation. In fact, some of the fastest growing ad networks are the social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, which have quite a lot to gain from more stringent tracking and opt-out legislation, as they operate walled gardens of the web with vast troves of personal data against which they serve ads. They are relatively immune to the effects of privacy legislation, as users willingly provide their personal information and agree to the privacy policies of their social networks of choice. Therefore, I doubt that we will see innovation on privacy or any kind of universal ad preference manager coming from the social networks. The social networks are undoubtedly very comfortable with were they stand vis-à-vis the privacy debate and will likely provide a challenge to any standardization that is not based and dependent on their standards.

In sum, despite the various challenges, Google has a simple and easy to use platform for managing individual relationships with advertising and a slightly dominant market position that it could use to shift the debate on privacy from simply promoting and enforcing opt-outs to enabling more personal management of advertising preferences where one option is universal opt-out. Up to this point the ad networks' singular focus on opt-outs has not served the industry well and the technology for enforcing it has been clunky and ineffective. It is time for a company or group of companies, with the required market share and technical acumen, to build a universal ad preference manager that can be easily installed in a web browser and used to either control the ads served or opt-out of tracking completely. A universal ad preferences manager would be a boon to the industry and is fundamental to its future health and success in the face of privacy concerns and more stringent legislation.