To Fix Data Privacy Issues, the Digital Ad Industry Should Operate Like a Mall

By Rotem Shaul, Co-CEO, Primis

The digital advertising industry has been in a collective frenzy since Google announced last month it would not support the use of alternative identifiers on its Chrome web browser once it phases out third-party cookie tracking.

Google’s policy exacerbates the pre-existing problem of how the industry will adapt to not being able to use third-party tracking cookies. Cookies have been the primary mechanism for building audiences and buying ad inventory for the modern era of advertising, and their inevitable obsolescence has left advertisers scrambling for a viable alternative.

The advertising industry should look to malls — yes, physical shopping centers — for inspiration on how to address the problem. Malls provide a perfect model for how the advertising can continue serving relevant, personalized messaging to consumers while simultaneously respecting their privacy. It’s a model that has all the targeting potential of cookies, but without any of the sticky data-tracking issues.

In a mall, each store operates as its own distinct, self-contained entity, with its own rules for sharing personal information. When you shop for shoes, you feel comfortable telling the sales clerks your shoe size. If you buy a dress, you feel comfortable sharing your measurements. At the pharmacy, you feel comfortable discussing your health history with the pharmacist.

Each of these scenarios is an example of a shopper sharing personal information in exchange for a more personalized consumer experience. And each exchange makes sense within its given context.

The important part, though, is stores don’t share the information with each other. Just because you trust your pharmacist with information about your medical history and allergic reactions doesn’t mean you want to share that data with the guy working the cell phone kiosk or the cashier at Cinnabon.

Not every store needs to know everything about you, which is the same model the advertising industry should adopt. Instead of having consumers share all of the information across the entire web, consumers should be able to pick and choose what data they want to share in each context. The process should be entirely transparent and opt-in.

In advertising, this would mean that a consumer determines their privacy settings at the web browser level.

When a shopper walks into a mall, stores are free to make assumptions about that person’s age and gender-based on their appearance, but everything else is left private. It’s up to the shopper if they want to share more intimate details with a particular store.

The same should apply to digital advertising. A user shares their general personal information with their web browser and that information is widely available. Everything else, though, is private, and it’s up to the consumer if they’d like to share more personal data with a website in exchange for a more bespoke experience.

Nothing is available to third-party data brokers. There is no surreptitious data-tracking. Everything is transparent and clearly communicated.

Some have suggested that all privacy settings should happen at the web browser level. A consumer adjusts their privacy settings once, and those rules apply all across the web from now until eternity. The argument for browser-level privacy is a consumer manages their privacy once and is done with it, quick and easy.

The problem with this approach is consumers will likely opt out of sharing personal information altogether, and that makes for a bad experience for advertisers and consumers alike. Plus, browsers have vague terms of service, and users would be making far-reaching decisions about their privacy without fully understanding what they’ve signed up for.

The mall model might require more messaging and opt-in notices from consumers, but it puts consumers at the center of the privacy conversation. It gives them total control over their data and lets them dictate how and where they would like to be advertised, and putting consumers first should always be the goal.