There are few things that unite the online ad industry. One topic that does: the idea that The Wall Street Journal is somehow to blame for spurring on potentially onerous regulation, thanks to its What They Know series on consumer privacy online.
That’s maybe the point. Meyer’s company is boasting fast growth numbers because the industry is finally scrambling for a more robust self-regulatory scheme — and is, fitfully, addressing important issues related to the collection of data online.
There’s been no shortage of blame placed by those in the industry on those outside it for the suspicions raised by its collection of data. These are complicated issues that for years have been skirted by the industry, which has instead of addressing them forthrightly chosen to hide behind a status quo that’s clearly not OK anymore.
It’s no wonder that many lawmakers and consumer groups assume the worst about the industry. It sat on its hands for years before being dragged, pretty much kicking and screaming at the barrel of a gun, into truly altering its practices. Even then, representatives of the industry have engaged in disingenuous arguments. The most laughable is the notion that if some form of privacy legislation passes along the lines of Do Not Track, the entire ad-supported Internet — maybe even democracy itself — will go down the tubes. Needless to say, the Armageddon talk is just a negotiating ploy. The industry wants to achieve the best result it can on the regulation front: the nearer the status quo the better.
To be sure, some of the language in the WSJ stories is overheated — the first article was a bit breathless with its talk of “your secrets” — but for the most part the articles have shed a needed light on what’s happening in an accessible way. There is a lot of surveillance — not sure what other word to use — that’s done behind the scenes. Is this done nefariously? In most cases, no. Is it happening? Undoubtedly. Do most regular people understand it? No.
The truth of the matter is the ad industry isn’t the real worry. The real worry is how this vast industry of data collection could be used by the government or insurance companies in ways that are contrary to our collective values. That’s a debate worth having.
But that’s not a debate the online ad industry seems interested in having. Instead it is protecting the billions poured into those hundreds of logos on the Luma Partners’ ecosystem slide. They say it’s not about the money, but it’s about the money.
The truth is this won’t end badly for the ad industry, the sky-is-falling cries notwithstanding. The government has bent over backwards not to impose regulations. It has no appetite for them. The current bills most likely to form the basis of regulation will, for the most part, leave how the industry operates unchanged. I ask every VC in ad tech I meet whether legislation has dulled enthusiasm for ad-targeting companies. I’ve yet to hear yes. During a Q&A I did with Luma’s Terry Kawaja, I gave him a word association with privacy.” His response: “Privacy happens.”