It would appear that Apple CEO Tim Cook is nearly alone among the Silicon Valley giants in wanting to respect personal data. He has even referred to the aggressive ad business as a “data industrial complex” where our own information “is being weaponized against us with military efficiency.” In line with this, Apple recently decided to make access to the iPhone’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) “opt-in” for every single application.
On your Apple iPhone or iPad, the IDFA is a unique code that ad exchanges use to track your activity on the web. It’s the mobile device’s equivalent of the third-party cookies that sit in your browser and track your web activity. It could enable abuse of your data, likely without you even knowing it. Apple’s idea is that if you want to provide the digital ad giants with data, you should give your permission.
Likely because there were complaints from some iPhone app developers, Apple decided to postpone this change. Some developers derive revenue from in-app advertising, and Apple is giving them time to adjust, but its mind is made up. Because Google, Facebook and quite a few other digital companies take the lion’s share of their revenues from in-app advertising, there has likely been some high-profile wringing of hands.
The Consequences Of Asking Permission
A 2020 Search Engine Land survey of 520 U.S. adult mobile users suggests that advertisers are right to be concerned. When asked, “If a mobile app asks to share your data with advertisers, such as location or device ID, would you agree?” only 23% said yes. Thirty-nine percent said no, and 38% opted for “I would need more information.” If that’s accurate, then 39% of that ad revenue from iPhone users may vanish. However, 56% of respondents said they were open to being persuaded to share their data through incentives.
This could herald the start of an important trend in digital advertising. In my view, this is not about Apple’s IDFA; it’s about the need to reengineer the digital advertising business. After all, things are not exactly peachy in the world of internet browsers either. Browsers used to happily accommodate third-party cookies, but now they’re not so indulgent.
The Browser Squeeze
In general, there are two types of cookie: good cookie and bad cookie. The good cookies help you interact with your favorite websites, improving your experience in one way or another. The bad cookies are third-party cookies. They sneak into your browser without even tipping their hat. Ad brokers can use them to track you, build a profile on you and interrupt you with ads. They support all the annoying excesses of digital advertising.
Such behavior has made ad blockers very popular. According to 2018 GlobalWebIndex data, 38% of computer users and 25% of smartphone users in North America use them at least once per month. It also encourages browser companies to exclude third-party cookies. Almost all, including Apple’s Safari, Firefox, Microsoft Edge and Opera, allow users to avoid third-party cookies.
The combined market share of all those browsers was less than 30% in September 2020, according to Statcounter. The gorilla in the room is Google Chrome, which enjoys just under 70% market share. But even Google has had enough. It has decided to eradicate those abominable cookies in the space of two years. Chrome may soon be endowed with a Privacy Sandbox, a privacy-preserving API. It intends to protect user data while allowing companies access to data for targeting.
Why They’re All Missing The Point
Let’s look at this in a different way. At the birth of the internet, cookies were a clever idea that helped to maintain “session integrity.” Since then, I believe they have been bent badly out of shape and abused. Any data stored that can enhance the technology and the user experience is welcome for me. But let’s not call such data cookies; let’s call it the performance data cache. No one should have any problem with technical innovators adding data to this cache if it improves their user experience and their digital life.
I believe third-party cookies are an abuse of your browser, pure and simple. It should be obvious to these companies and all the others involved in this “cause célèbre” that interactions between a person and a website should, wherever possible, be completely device-independent and browser-independent.
Companies that respect interactions between a person, assisted by their stored personal data, and the website with all its capabilities (including its ability to serve ads) will likely prevail in a post-third-party-cookie world. I am not alone in thinking this way. This view fully aligns with the idea of “zero-party data.” The term, reportedly first defined by Forrester, refers to data that users proactively share and grant permission to a brand to use for a particular intent or value exchange.
Companies should focus on crafting experiences that collect zero-party data in a meaningful, delightful way. After all, a 2019 Blis study (via PR Newswire) suggests users are becoming increasingly aware of the value of their personal data.
Ultimately, it’s my data. I am the cookie. I am the browser. I am the device. You, Mr. Website, and you, Mr. Advertiser, need to deal with me directly.
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