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Facebook, Google and now Verizon are accelerating their tracking efforts despite consumers’ privacy concerns

They’re all pursuing the holy grail for digital advertising — syncing up personal information with browsing history and app usage.

Lowell McAdam, chairman and CEO of Verizon Communications, talks on his cellphone as he attends the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Drew Angerer / Getty

Verizon has topped itself by playing Russian roulette with consumer trust in an attempt to compete with the advertising businesses of Google and Facebook. In an email announcement last Sunday night to select subscribers, Verizon signaled how it intends to compete with those two powerhouses, outlining its plan to combine offline information, such as postal address, email address and device type, with AOL browser cookies, Apple and Google advertising IDs, and their own unique identifier header. Coupled with all of their customers’ browsing history and app usage, this mass of customer data will make for a rich competitive product to Facebook and Google.

There’s just one problem: This practice requires explicit opt-in consent from consumers under the new FCC privacy rules. Although the rules are not yet required to be adopted (and notably on the chopping block in a Trump presidency), it's hard to argue that Verizon’s plan doesn't violate the spirit of the rulemaking.

Verizon’s unilateral move to compete with Google and Facebook is likely due to the fact that the well-documented “duopoly” collectively takes more than 100 percent of the incremental growth in digital advertising — their gravy train is tied to the data which fuels their direct-marketing businesses. Why? Because Google and Facebook have a unique ability to link up personally identified users with browsing history, app usage and location across the device graph.

It’s been nearly two years since I wrote for Recode about Verizon and Turn’s massive zombie cookie stumble which ultimately led to an FCC investigation and settlement. It was a prime example of the breakdown in consumer trust, which we had been highlighting for years, and presciently previewed the ad blocking crisis to come. It also inspired DCN to express its concern to the FCC when the agency deliberated how to enforce privacy rules for broadband. After all, ISPs have a unique ability to see nearly all of your internet traffic, not unlike Google and Facebook.

Enter ad blocking. The primary consumer grievances inspiring installation of ad blockers are now widely understood: Ads infringe on user privacy, obscure content, expose users’ devices to security hazards, and hoover up bandwidth and slow page loads. As the IAB’s LEAN standards bear fruit, we expect several of these concerns to be pacified. However, the industry is willfully ignoring the canary in the coal mine — consumer privacy. While the “A” in LEAN refers to the industry’s self-regulatory AdChoices program, consumers need even more protection and better privacy tools.

Meanwhile, Facebook, Google and now Verizon are instead accelerating their tracking efforts, despite privacy concerns appearing consistently in the top reasons for using an ad blocker. They are in fast pursuit of the holy grail for digital advertising — syncing up a consumers’ personally-identifiable information with all browsing history and app usage:

  1. Facebook was the first company to do this at scale across devices, due to its persistent login for the service. The social network was only missing an ability to track browsing history and app usage across the web, which it solved in 2014 by proliferating the web with “Like” buttons to passively track consumer web usage under the disguise of being a consumer feature.
  2. Google held fast on its privacy promise for nearly a decade until the pressures to compete with Facebook and link up personal info across devices became too significant. In October, investigative reporter Julia Angwin uncovered that Google had quietly erased its ban on personally identifiable web tracking by linking up its massive DoubleClick tracking arm with its personal info from Gmail.
  3. The most extensive data brokers can collect thousands of points of data on consumers, but their accuracy and capabilities are limited by not being able to link up to personal information. My most recent review of BlueKai’s detailed registry of what they think they know about me was littered with bad information.

Whether it’s a third party like Facebook or Google tracking across the web or an ISP leveraging its distribution arm, this is outside of consumer expectations. Importantly to the digital media industry, it also devalues the context and relationship of consumer trust which drives the businesses of premium publishers. While we were hopeful that the new FCC privacy rules would shift value back to publishers, we now recognize that they’re in limbo without backing from the White House. It’s unfortunate that Verizon has chosen to bury them before the new guy even shows up at the door.

Advantage: Ad blocking.

Jason Kint is the CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade association that exclusively serves the diverse needs of digital content companies that manage direct, trusted relationships with consumers and marketers. A 20-year veteran of the digital media industry, he previously led the evolution of CBS Sports into a multi-platform brand offering premier broadcast, online and mobile sports content as SVP and General Manager of CBS Interactive’s Sports Division. Reach him @jason_kint.

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