Online Digital Identity: A Tale of Two Internets

By Ionut Ciobotaru, Chief Product Officer at Verve Group

The internet has always represented an amalgamation of anonymous activity and authenticated users, with the balance of power between these two diametric views of online behavior swinging dramatically throughout the digital age. Today, the internet is coming full circle, with the past decade’s drive toward an ecosystem of known, trackable, authenticated online users coming to a sudden halt on many fronts amid new privacy regulations and restrictions from industry titans.

But this isn’t just a return to the web’s anonymous past, and our industry shouldn’t treat it as such. Instead of simply acknowledging the next swing of the pendulum—from anonymous to authenticated users, and now back to anonymous—we need to work together to build a future that respects a full spectrum of digital identity rather than two worlds divided.

We’ve Been Here Before—or Have We?

The genesis of the internet—before the rise of today’s personally identifiable information (PII)-rich walled gardens—was built around the idea of an anonymous web. At the start, even established services permitted users to remain anonymous and to keep their personal data private. During these early days, the open web was accessible and free to everyone, even without identification.

Over time, this model—unsophisticated as it was—gave way to the authenticated internet, where access to services required users to log in and identify themselves via a variety of personal information. The premise of the authenticated web was built on a value exchange in which consumers traded identity for access to free content and services. Even in non-logged-in environments, publishers sought to turn anonymous visitors into known users (i.e., authenticate them) via cookie technology and other tracking methods, thereby enabling better monetization of their online traffic through personalized ad experiences.

Now, as privacy regulations proliferate worldwide and industry platforms alter their policies in a way that has effectively deprecated cookie technology, the majority of the web is transitioning back to its anonymous origins. Moving forward, a significant portion of online activity will be happening among unidentifiable users, and that has significant implications for access to (and monetization of) online content and services going forward.

Embracing the Shades of Gray

It’s time for us to put a stop to the bifurcated nature of the web today, in both desktop and mobile environments. In a privacy-first world where people expect companies to treat them as individuals, we need to operate on a spectrum of identity. To do this, we need to break down the walls between authenticated and anonymous online experiences in a way that respects user privacy while still enabling publishers and advertisers to communicate with audiences in informed ways. The key to this will be the proper leveraging of contextual and behavioral data on the open web and in mobile environments.

On the web today, there are proposed solutions—such as Turtledove and Sparrow—for creating anonymized segments, or cohorts, without tracking a specific person. These methods do not rely on user logins or personally identifiable data. Instead, they generate audiences through contextual and behavioral data derived locally, on the device. These practices are both privacy-centric but future-focused in that they enable users to enjoy free content while preserving their privacy. But of course, they have their limitations, including potential paths to data leakage.

In the mobile advertising arena, building audiences based on contextual data is still in its infancy. However, the broad concept is not new. Consider gaming apps, where users are put into cohorts for analytics and user acquisition optimization purposes. Cohorts are usually defined based on their behavior within the game or their predicted value, based on how they progress through and engage with the content. The idea of building mobile audiences for advertising based on contextual and behavioral parameters is similar to segmenting players into cohorts. Our industry can move toward this model of audience building by employing a common language for defining context among publishers and advertisers, such as what is achieved through the IAB Tech Lab’s content and audience taxonomies.

Building the Future of Digital Identity

By leaning into context and behavior to define audiences in otherwise anonymous environments, our industry can move toward a notion of digital identity that is a mix of existing identity models, both authenticated and anonymous. However, connecting the dots across the spectrum won’t be simple.

We are entering uncharted territory where collaboration will be required to enable users to be known where they want to be known, anonymous where they want to be anonymous, and yet still have access to tailored, targeted experiences wherever they are in the digital ecosystem. To achieve this future, it’s time for publishers, advertisers, DSPs, SSPs, and other open web platforms alike—regardless of where they sit on the authenticated vs. anonymous spectrum—to come together to engineer a connected, privacy-first experience across the web and mobile environments.

Now is a pivotal time for our industry, and it’s incumbent upon all players to stop viewing identity in terms of black and white. Through collaboration, we can build a future for the open web that respects not only the shades of gray within digital identity but also the full spectrum of the digital identity rainbow.