Considering Privacy Legislation in the context of contemporary digital data marketing practices
Last week, the leading global advertisers, online platforms and data marketers gathered for the most important awards given by the ad industry—the “Cannes Lions.” Reviewing the winners and the “shortlist” of runners-up—competing in categories such as “Creative Data,” “Social and Influencer,” “Brand Experience & Activation,” “Creative Commerce” and “Mobile”—is essential to learn where the data-driven marketing business—and ultimately much of our digital experiences—is headed. An analysis of the entries reveals a growing role for machine learning and artificial intelligence in the creation of online marketing, along with geolocation tracking, immersive content and other “engagement” technologies. One takeaway, not surprisingly, is that the online ad industry continues to perfect techniques to secure our interest in its content so it can to gather more data from us.
A U.S.-based company that also generated news during Cannes was The Trade Desk, a relatively unknown data marketing service that is playing a major role assisting advertisers and content providers to overcome any new privacy challenges posed by emerging or future legislation. The Trade Desk announced last week a further integration of its data and ad-targeting service with Amazon’s cloud AWS division, as well as a key role assisting grocer Albertsons new digital ad division. The Trade Desk has brokered a series of alliances and partnerships with Walmart, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Gannett, NBC Universal, and Disney—to name only a few.
There are several reasons these marketers and content publishing companies are aligning themselves with The Trade Desk. One of the most important is the company’s leadership in developing a method to collect and monetize a person’s identity for ongoing online marketing. “Unified ID 2.0” is touted to be a privacy-focused method that enables surveillance and effective ad targeting. The marketing industry refers to these identity approaches as “currencies” that enable the buying and selling of individuals for advertising. There are now dozens of identity “graph” or “identity spine” services, in addition to UDID, which reflect far-reaching partnerships among data brokers, publishers, adtech specialists, advertisers and marketing agencies. Many of these approaches are interoperable, such as the one involving Acxiom spin-off LiveRamp and The Trade Desk. A key goal, when you listen to what these identity brokers say, is that they would like to establish a universal identifier for each of us, to directly capture our attention, reap our data, and monetize our behavior.
For the last several years, as a result of the enactment of the GDPR in the EU, the passage of privacy legislation in California, and the potential of federal privacy legislation, Google, Apple, Firefox and others have made changes or announced plans related to their online data practices. So-called “third party cookies,” which have long enabled commercial surveillance, are being abandoned—especially since their role has repeatedly raised concerns from data-protection regulators. Taking their place are what the surveillance marketing business believes are privacy-regulation-proof strategies. There are basically two major, but related, efforts that have been underway—here in the U.S. and globally.
The first tactic is for a platform or online publisher to secure the use of our information through an affirmative consent process—called a “first-party” data relationship in the industry. The reasoning goes is that an individual wants an ongoing interaction with the site—for news, videos, groceries, drugs and other services, etc. Under this rationale, we are said to understand and approve how platforms and publishers will use our information as part of the value exchange. First-party data is becoming the most valuable asset in the global digital marketing business, enabling ongoing collection, generating insights, and helping maintain the surveillance model. It is considered to have few privacy problems. All the major platforms that raise so many troubling issues—including Google, Amazon, Meta/Facebook—operate through extensive first-party data relationships. It’s informative to see how the lead digital marketing trade group—the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB)—explains it: “ “first party data is your data…presents the least privacy concerns because you have full control over its collection, ownership and use.”
The second tactic is a variation on the first, but also relies on various forms of identity-resolution strategies. It’s a response in part to the challenges posed by the dominance of the “walled garden” digital behemoths (Google, etc.) as well the need to overcome the impact of privacy regulation. These identity services are the replacement for cookies. Some form of first-party data is captured (and streaming video services are seen as a gold mine here to secure consent), along with additional information using machine learning to crunch data from public sources and other “signals.” Multimillion member panels of consumers who provide ongoing feedback to marketers, including information about their online behaviors, also help better determine how to effectively fashion the digital targeting elements. The Trade Desk-led UDID is one such identity framework. Another is TransUnion’s “Fabrick,” which “provides marketers with a sustainable, privacy-first foundation for all their data management, marketing and measurement needs.” Such rhetoric is typical of how the adtech/data broker/digital marketing sectors are trying to reframe how they conduct surveillance.
Another related development, as part of the restructuring of the commercial surveillance economy, is the role of “data clean rooms.” Clean rooms enable data to be processed under specific rules set up by a marketer. As Advertising Agerecently explained, clean rooms enable first-party and other marketers to provide “access to their troves of data.” For Comcast’s NBCU division and Disney, this treasure chest of information comes from “set-top boxes, streaming platforms, theme parks and movie studios.” Various privacy rules are supposed to be applied; in some cases where they have consent, two or more parties will exchange their first-party data. In other cases, where they may not have such open permission, they will be able to “create really interesting ad products; whether it's a certain audience slice, or audience taxonomy, or different types of ad units….” As an NBCU executive explained about its clean room activity, “we match the data, we build custom audiences…we plan, activate and we measure. The clean room is now the safe neutral sandbox where all the parties can feel good sharing first party data without concerns of data leakage.”
We currently have at least one major privacy bill in Congress that includes important protections for civil rights and restricts data targeting of children and teens, among other key provisions. It’s also important when examining these proposals to see how effective they will be in dealing with the surveillance marketing industry’s current tactics. If they don’t effectively curtail what is continuous and profound surveillance and manipulation by the major digital marketers, and also fail to rein in the power of the most dominant platforms, will such a federal privacy promise really deliver? We owe it to the public to determine whether such bills will really “clean up” the surveillance system at the core of our online lives.