Digital advertising is creepy, and it has to change

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OPINION: Recent stats suggest a lot of us don’t bother to scan the Covid-19 QR code when we visit a coffee shop, office, car park, or whatever. My gut tells me that laziness is largely to blame for our scanning fecklessness. And that’s fair enough. But for some, privacy will be another factor. Which is also fair enough.

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When the Covid-19 Tracer App was first introduced, a lot of questions were (rightly) asked about what the Government would do with the data – the thought of a government agency knowing its citizens’ every move is an ugly one.

It provoked a healthy debate, and the result was that most of us were confident the Government would handle our personal data in a way that respected our privacy.

The digital ads industry didn’t face the same level of scrutiny.

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Instead, the vast majority of us just routinely accepted whatever a website or app’s terms and conditions were (if it was even an option) without having the faintest idea as to what we’ve just accepted.

Why? Because we were getting something (Facebook, a news article, a fun game on our phone) for free. Now we’ve found ourselves in a situation where ad networks are tracking everything we do online. What sites we visit, the news we read, the games we play, even the places we visit and how long we spend there.

We’ve found ourselves in a situation where ad networks are tracking everything we do online (file photo).

Benjamin Dada/Unsplash

We’ve found ourselves in a situation where ad networks are tracking everything we do online (file photo).

I’ve been asking myself why we are comfortable with shadowy ad networks collecting intimate data about ourselves and not our democratically elected government trying to co-ordinate our fight against a deadly disease.

I have a theory that ignorance is the reason, but that’s a much bigger topic.

Thankfully, there is some good news here. The practice of collecting as much user data as possible is coming to an end. Sort of.

But two of the leading players, Apple and Google (it’s always Apple and Google!), have some very big and very different changes in store that will alter how/if our data is collected and sold to the highest bidder.

But there’s one thing they both agree on: third-party cookies (the technology that tracks you around the web) must go.

David Court: “The vast majority of us just routinely accepted whatever a website or app’s terms and conditions were without having the faintest idea as to what we’ve just accepted.”

Abigail Dougherty

David Court: “The vast majority of us just routinely accepted whatever a website or app’s terms and conditions were without having the faintest idea as to what we’ve just accepted.”

And the process has already started. Apple and Mozilla, for example, already block third-party cookies in their Safari and Firefox web browsers by default.

This means no advertiser, or website, can track you unless you fiddle around with the browser’s settings and deliberately turn the cookies back on again.

Apple is taking things a step further, letting its iPhone users deny apps the ability to collect cross-app data when it rolls out its next software update, iOS 14.5.

The reason Apple and Mozilla are leading the fight here is logical: their business model doesn’t rely on the value or effectiveness of digital advertising.

Safari and Firefox’s share of the web browser market is less than a quarter, though. Chrome, which is owned by Google, has 63.64 per cent of the market. This is the ball game.

Apple is taking privacy a step further, letting its iPhone users deny apps the ability to collect cross-app data when it rolls out its next software update.

Getty/Peter Macdiarmid

Apple is taking privacy a step further, letting its iPhone users deny apps the ability to collect cross-app data when it rolls out its next software update.

Interestingly, Google has also said that it will wean its Chrome browser away from allowing single-user tracking, confirming that it will phase out third-party cookies some time in 2022.

What happens next is still up for grabs.

Apple wants people to use its (free) SKAdNetwork API that will allow advertisers to measure the overall effectiveness of their ads without getting access to personal information that could be traced back to individual users.

The future of advertising on Chrome and other Google-owned products is a little more complicated, though.

Selling web-based ads is the backbone of Google’s business, and the ability to advertise next to users who demonstrate certain behavioural traits is a crucial part of that business.

Selling web-based ads is the backbone of Google’s business, and the ability to advertise next to users who demonstrate certain behavioural traits is a crucial part of that business.

Patrick Semansky/AP

Selling web-based ads is the backbone of Google’s business, and the ability to advertise next to users who demonstrate certain behavioural traits is a crucial part of that business.

The process of totally anonymising users would be suicide for Google’s revenues. Which is why Google is trialling something called FLoC instead.

FLoC stands for Federated Learning of Cohorts, and its purpose is to allow “interest-based advertising” by targeting cohorts, not individuals.

This, Google tells us, allows users to remain anonymous as they’re protected by a flock of at least “thousands” in their cohorts.

Unfortunately, both Apple and Google’s proposed solutions to third-party cookies share a similar flaw. Neither are universal. Apple can’t make Google adopt its SKAdNetwork API, and Google has zero chance of persuading Apple to budge on incorporating FLoC inside its walled-garden App Store environment.

Meaning we’re still going to be stalked and snooped on for a little while longer before our digital stalkers leave us alone.



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