Don Marti

Mon 18 Feb 2013 07:38:46 AM PST

Real Advertising needs a voice

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation bills itself as "Smart Ideas for the Innovation Economy," but what they're putting out there is just a well-summarized version of the conventional wisdom on creepy adtech: The problem is that if users are not tracked, then websites cannot deliver targeted advertising. Instead, websites would only be able to use non-targeted advertising which does not generate as much revenue. Less revenue means less free content and services for Internet users. But privacy advocates are pushing forward, regardless of the consequences.

The conventional wisdom has two key points. First, more creepy stuff means more money for everyone. Second, users don't mind creepy—it's those scary elitist "advocates".

I believe they're wrong on both points. First, the idea that the whole industry can profit by going creepy. I don't doubt that individual ad campaigns can get better click-through rates when targeted. But targeting tends to fuel a race to the bottom for content, and a decrease in signaling power for the medium as a whole. Look at the end of the road adtech is taking, and you'll see email spam already there, funding no content and satisfying no users.

Second, the conventional wisdom says that irresponsible "advocates", not regular users, are behind demands for privacy tech. I wondered about the demand for web ad blockers back in 2009, when hardly anyone was using them. Ad blocking had been around for years as an easy-to-install browser add-on, much easier than a bunch of things that did catch on. But calling it a niche product would have been generous. Nobody did it.

Today, though, ad blocking is is over 9 percent, and spawning at least one startup to help sites deal with it. What changed? Three words: What They Know. This popular Wall Street Journal series started in 2010, and began explaining adtech practices to the public, well enough that the explanation stuck. And a lot of other mainstream media coverage followed. If you believe the conventional wisdom, we should have seen something like: 2009, hardly any ad blocking. 2010, the WSJ explains how well customized those ads are to you. By 2011, ad blocking should disappear, right? Why should I block what's relevant to me? Instead, the opposite happened. People discovered the extent of tracking, and ad blocking finally went mainstream.

In a way, ad blocking is following in the footsteps of spam filters, which were also niche for a long time before they became a must-have. We missed the opportunity to align privacy tech with laws and norms to help everyone, both users and legit advertisers. Shortsighted lobbyists at the DMA got CAN-SPAM passed, which helped the bottom-feeders (who probably don't pay for DMA memberships anyway) but made it a never-ending challenge for legit DMA members to get a legit email newsletter through.

There are a lot of details to work out about how the norms and protocols for online ads have to change, all the way up and down the stack, to support real advertising, and not just direct response. (Firefox is making progress, for example.) But starting with the conventional wisdom on creepy tracking will get us to the wrong place. The real danger here is that the policy conversation about Internet advertising is missing a voice. Somehow, the chair at the debate reserved for Advertising is not occupied by Advertising in general at all—it's been reserved by the vendors of specific creepy techniques.