There are no shortage of opinions on the future of cookies and tracking across the digital media landscape. Regardless of your thoughts on the matter, the trends — in regulation, consumer sentiment, media coverage, and browser actions — all suggest that the areas of consumer identity, data and privacy will continue to undergo great change. As an industry, we must embrace this change and realign our efforts to put consumer privacy at the center. Industry standards around identity and privacy (with accountability) are critical to establishing a new paradigm of consumer trust that fuels a healthier digital experience and the next wave of innovation for consumers.
THE PERFECT STORM
We are seeing a “perfect storm” within our industry, with a number of factors increasing and feeding upon each other simultaneously. As the Web increasingly became a personalized experience for us as consumers, the scale of personal data contribution, collection, sharing and use increased accordingly. And with recent advancements in machine learning, companies are able to now exponentially increase their understanding of consumer behavior. With the proliferation of personal, connected devices (smart speakers, phones, homes, cars, etc.), and the increased attention and reliance we willingly bestow upon them, the digital “data exhaust” we produce as consumers increases exponentially as well.
Consumers clearly value the benefits of their “always on” personalized connection, but also see the side effects — even if they’re not really sure how it’s all happening. It’s that sneaking feeling that “someone is watching”, and it makes them uncomfortable — whether it’s true or not. As a result, their expectations around privacy, transparency and control have heightened. And in response, Web browsers have taken steps to, in some cases, eliminate cookies altogether.
THE HTTP COOKIE WASN’T DESIGNED FOR THIS
At its core, the issue is that the original architecture of the Internet did not standardize consumer identity or privacy (and still doesn’t). Cookies were (and remain) the sole mechanism for distinguishing one consumer from another, and a cookie may only be read by the party that sets it. It’s like everyone you meet at a conference having to arbitrarily apply a different name tag to your lapel, which only they can read! This has encumbered our online experience with thousands of cookies (or “name tags”), one for every publisher or brand that we engage with, along with every vendor they use to personalize, measure or optimize our engagement (even if we don’t interact with those vendors directly). The cookie is the only way (just as it was when it was invented 25 years ago), even for respecting a consumer’s privacy preferences.
AVOIDING THE COOKIE APOCALYPSE
The current scenario involving thousands of proprietary cookies, excessive and redundant tracking pixels to “ID sync” them, opaque data collection, and fragmented privacy controls, is no longer realistic. We face the complete elimination of third-party cookies and audience recognition as we know it. To avoid this scenario, we have to put the consumer at the center.
Sure, the industry can certainly continue proprietary innovation that facilitates opaque data collection, sharing and use, while necessitating further complicated ID syncing processes. But these actions only further the arms race with browsers and operating systems, strengthens their resolve, invites other unintended consequences, and defers the inevitable. These actions will not earn for our industry an “ID for Advertising” or any other support from the browsers, and may even in fact cause the loss of mobile-native device IDs as well. The time for action is now.
THERE’S ONLY ONE REASONABLE WAY FORWARD
Collaboration and cooperation among publishers, brands and their trusted third-party vendors around a neutral, standardized mechanism for consumer identity and privacy preferences is the only way. The standardized identifier must work in harmony with global regulatory frameworks for consumer privacy, and the privilege of access to the identifier must be coupled to the responsibility of respecting the standardized consumer privacy settings attached to it. And together we must hold ourselves accountable to responsible and ethical collection and use of consumer data, with complete end-user transparency and control.
IAB Tech lab is leading our industry on this front with its DigiTrust ID and working group discussions, and we need your support and deployment. As we engage with the browser community, we fully expect their appetite to work in cooperation with us is dependent on our ability to work in cooperation with each other. Since we can all agree the landscape will evolve, we also need your help evolving the technology to meet the needs of all stakeholders (including consumers), in compliance with evolving regional policy.
IT’S ABOUT CONSUMER TRUST
The cookie apocalypse is coming, but if we embrace this change and realign our efforts industry-wide to put consumer privacy at the center, we can save audience recognition and all the benefits with it — personalization, measurement, attribution, etc. With your support, industry standards around identity and privacy (with accountability) can establish a new paradigm of consumer trust that fuels a better digital experience for consumers, and the next wave of innovation for business.