Facebook won’t ban political ads, prefers to keep screwing democracy

It’s 2020 — a key election year in the US — and Facebook is doubling down on its policy of letting people pay it to fuck around with democracy.

Despite trenchant criticism — including from US lawmakers accusing Facebook’s CEO to his face of damaging American democracy the company is digging in, announcing as much today by reiterating its defence of continuing to accept money to run microtargeted political ads.

Instead of banning political ads Facebook is trumpeting a few tweaks to the information it lets users see about political ads — claiming it’s boosting “transparency” and “controls” while leaving its users vulnerable to default settings that offer neither.  

Political ads running on Facebook are able to be targeted at individuals’ preferences as a result of the company’s pervasive tracking and profiling of Internet users. And ethical concerns about microtargeting led the UK’s data protection watchdog to call in 2018 for a pause on the use of digital ad tools like Facebook by political campaigns — warning of grave risks to democracy.

Facebook isn’t for pausing political microtargeting, though. Even though various elements of its data-gathering activities are also subject to privacy and consent complaints, regulatory scrutiny and legal challenge in Europe, under regional data protection legislation.

Instead, the company made it clear last fall that it won’t fact-check political ads, nor block political messages that violate its speech policies — thereby giving politicians carte blanche to run hateful lies, if they so choose.

Facebook’s algorithms also demonstrably select for maximum eyeball engagement, making it simply the ‘smart choice’ for the modern digitally campaigning politician to run outrageous BS on Facebook — as long time Facebook exec Andrew Bosworth recently pointed out in an internal posting that leaked in full to the NYT.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s defence of his social network’s political ads policy boils down to repeatedly claiming ‘it’s all free speech man’ (we paraphrase).

This is an entirely nuance-free argument that comedian Sacha Baron Cohen expertly demolished last year, pointing out that: “Under this twisted logic if Facebook were around in the 1930s it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his solution to the ‘Jewish problem.’”

Facebook responded to the take-down with a denial that hate speech exists on its platform since it has a policy against it — per its typical crisis PR playbook. And it’s more of the same selectively self-serving arguments being dispensed by Facebook today.

In a blog post attributed to its director of product management, Rob Leathern, it expends more than 1,000 words on why it’s still not banning political ads (it would be bad for advertisers wanting to reaching “key audiences”, is the non-specific claim) — including making a diversionary call for regulators to set ad standards, thereby passing the buck on ‘democratic accountability’ to lawmakers (whose electability might very well depend on how many Facebook ads they run…), while spinning cosmetic, made-for-PR tweaks to its ad settings and what’s displayed in an ad archive that most Facebook users will never have heard of as “expanded transparency” and “more control”. 

In fact these tweaks do nothing to reform the fundamental problem of damaging defaults.

The onus remains on Facebook users to do the leg work on understanding what its platform is pushing at their eyeballs and why.

Even as the ‘extra’ info now being drip-fed to the Ad Library is still highly fuzzy (“We are adding ranges for Potential Reach, which is the estimated target audience size for each political, electoral or social issue ad so you can see how many people an advertiser wanted to reach with every ad,” as Facebook writes of one tweak.)

The new controls similarly require users to delve into complex settings menus in order to avail themselves of inherently incremental limits — such as an option that will let people opt into seeing “fewer” political and social issue ads. (Fewer is naturally relative, ergo the scale of the reduction remains entirely within Facebook’s control — so it’s more meaningless ‘control theatre’ from the lord of dark pattern design. Why can’t people switch off political and issue ads entirely?)

Another incremental setting lets users “stop seeing ads based on an advertiser’s Custom Audience from a list”.

But just imagine trying to explain WTF that means to your parents or grandparents — let alone an average Internet user actually being able to track down the ‘control’ and exercise any meaningful agency over the political junk ads they’re being exposed to on Facebook.

It is, to quote Baron Cohen, “bullshit”.

Nor are outsiders the only ones calling out Zuckerberg on his BS and “twisted logic”: A number of Facebook’s own employees warned in an open letter last year that allowing politicians to lie in Facebook ads essentially weaponizes the platform.

They also argued that the platform’s advanced targeting and behavioral tracking tools make it “hard for people in the electorate to participate in the public scrutiny that we’re saying comes along with political speech” — accusing the company’s leadership of making disingenuous arguments in defence of a toxic, anti-democratic policy. 

Nothing in what Facebook has announced today resets the anti-democratic asymmetry inherent in the platform’s relationship to its users.

Facebook users — and democratic societies — remain, by default, preyed upon by self-interested political interests thanks to Facebook’s policies which are dressed up in a self-interested misappropriation of ‘free speech’ as a cloak for its unfettered exploitation of individual attention as fuel for a propaganda-as-service business.

Yet other policy positions are available.

Twitter announced a total ban on political ads last year — and while the move doesn’t resolve wider disinformation issues attached to its platform, the decision to bar political ads has been widely lauded as a positive, standard-setting example.

Google also followed suit by announcing a ban on “demonstrably false claims” in political ads. It also put limits on the targeting terms that can be used for political advertising buys that appear in search, on display ads and on YouTube.

Still Facebook prefers to exploit “the absence of regulation”, as its blog post puts it, to not do the right thing and keep sticking two fingers up at democratic accountability — because not applying limits on behavioral advertising best serves its business interests. Screw democracy.

“We have based [our policies] on the principle that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public,” Facebook writes, ignoring the fact that some of its own staff already pointed out the sketchy hypocrisy of trying to claim that complex ad targeting tools and techniques are open to public scrutiny.

Will online privacy make a comeback in 2020?

Last year was a landmark for online privacy in many ways, with something of a consensus emerging that consumers deserve protection from the companies that sell their attention and behavior for profit.

The debate now is largely around how to regulate platforms, not whether it needs to happen.

The consensus among key legislators acknowledges that privacy is not just of benefit to individuals but can be likened to public health; a level of protection afforded to each of us helps inoculate democratic societies from manipulation by vested and vicious interests.

The fact that human rights are being systematically abused at population-scale because of the pervasive profiling of Internet users — a surveillance business that’s dominated in the West by tech giants Facebook and Google, and the adtech and data broker industry which works to feed them — was the subject of an Amnesty International report in November 2019 that urges legislators to take a human rights-based approach to setting rules for Internet companies.

“It is now evident that the era of self-regulation in the tech sector is coming to an end,” the charity predicted.

Democracy disrupted

The dystopian outgrowth of surveillance capitalism was certainly in awful evidence in 2019, with elections around the world attacked at cheap scale by malicious propaganda that relies on adtech platforms’ targeting tools to hijack and skew public debate, while the chaos agents themselves are shielded from democratic view.

Platform algorithms are also still encouraging Internet eyeballs towards polarized and extremist views by feeding a radicalized, data-driven diet that panders to prejudices in the name of maintaining engagement — despite plenty of raised voices calling out the programmed antisocial behavior. So what tweaks there have been still look like fiddling round the edges of an existential problem.

Worse still, vulnerable groups remain at the mercy of online hate speech which platforms not only can’t (or won’t) weed out, but whose algorithms often seem to deliberately choose to amplify — the technology itself being complicit in whipping up violence against minorities. It’s social division as a profit-turning service.

The outrage-loving tilt of these attention-hogging adtech giants has also continued directly influencing political campaigning in the West this year — with cynical attempts to steal votes by shamelessly platforming and amplifying misinformation.

From the Trump tweet-bomb we now see full-blown digital disops underpinning entire election campaigns, such as the UK Conservative Party’s strategy in the 2019 winter General Election, which featured doctored videos seeded to social media and keyword targeted attack ads pointing to outright online fakes in a bid to hack voters’ opinions.

Political microtargeting divides the electorate as a strategy to conquer the poll. The problem is it’s inherently anti-democratic.

No wonder, then, that repeat calls to beef up digital campaigning rules and properly protect voters’ data have so far fallen on deaf ears. The political parties all have their hands in the voter data cookie-jar. Yet it’s elected politicians whom we rely upon to update the law. This remains a grave problem for democracies going into 2020 — and a looming U.S. presidential election.

So it’s been a year when, even with rising awareness of the societal cost of letting platforms suck up everyone’s data and repurpose it to sell population-scale manipulation, not much has actually changed. Certainly not enough.

Yet looking ahead there are signs the writing is on the wall for the ‘data industrial complex’ — or at least that change is coming. Privacy can make a comeback.

Adtech under attack

Developments in late 2019 such as Twitter banning all political ads and Google shrinking how political advertisers can microtarget Internet users are notable steps — even as they don’t go far enough.

But it’s also a relatively short hop from banning microtargeting sometimes to banning profiling for ad targeting entirely.

Alternative online ad models (contextual targeting) are proven and profitable — just ask search engine DuckDuckGo . While the ad industry gospel that only behavioral targeting will do now has academic critics who suggest it offer far less uplift than claimed, even as — in Europe — scores of data protection complaints underline the high individual cost of maintaining the status quo.

Startups are also innovating in the pro-privacy adtech space (see, for example, the Brave browser).

Changing the system — turning the adtech tanker — will take huge effort, but there is a growing opportunity for just such systemic change.

This year, it might be too much to hope for regulators get their act together enough to outlaw consent-less profiling of Internet users entirely. But it may be that those who have sought to proclaim ‘privacy is dead’ will find their unchecked data gathering facing death by a thousand regulatory cuts.

Or, tech giants like Facebook and Google may simple outrun the regulators by reengineering their platforms to cloak vast personal data empires with end-to-end encryption, making it harder for outsiders to regulate them, even as they retain enough of a fix on the metadata to stay in the surveillance business. Fixing that would likely require much more radical regulatory intervention.

European regulators are, whether they like it or not, in this race and under major pressure to enforce the bloc’s existing data protection framework. It seems likely to ding some current-gen digital tracking and targeting practices. And depending on how key decisions on a number of strategic GDPR complaints go, 2020 could see an unpicking — great or otherwise — of components of adtech’s dysfunctional ‘norm’.

Among the technologies under investigation in the region is real-time bidding; a system that powers a large chunk of programmatic digital advertising.

The complaint here is it breaches the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) because it’s inherently insecure to broadcast granular personal data to scores of entities involved in the bidding chain.

A recent event held by the UK’s data watchdog confirmed plenty of troubling findings. Google responded by removing some information from bid requests — though critics say it does not go far enough. Nothing short of removing personal data entirely will do in their view, which sums to ads that are contextually (not micro)targeted.

Powers that EU data protection watchdogs have at their disposal to deal with violations include not just big fines but data processing orders — which means corrective relief could be coming to take chunks out of data-dependent business models.

As noted above, the adtech industry has already been put on watch this year over current practices, even as it was given a generous half-year grace period to adapt.

In the event it seems likely that turning the ship will take longer. But the message is clear: change is coming. The UK watchdog is due to publish another report in 2020, based on its review of the sector. Expect that to further dial up the pressure on adtech.

Web browsers have also been doing their bit by baking in more tracker blocking by default. And this summer Marketing Land proclaimed the third party cookie dead — asking what’s next?

Alternatives and workarounds will and are springing up (such as stuffing more in via first party cookies). But the notion of tracking by background default is under attack if not quite yet coming unstuck.

Ireland’s DPC is also progressing on a formal investigation of Google’s online Ad Exchange. Further real-time bidding complaints have been lodged across the EU too. This is an issue that won’t be going away soon, however much the adtech industry might wish it.

Year of the GDPR banhammer?

2020 is the year that privacy advocates are really hoping that Europe will bring down the hammer of regulatory enforcement. Thousands of complaints have been filed since the GDPR came into force but precious few decisions have been handed down. Next year looks set to be decisive — even potentially make or break for the data protection regime.

Adtech told to keep calm and fix its ‘lawfulness’ problem

Six months after warning that the real-time bidding (RTB) component of programmatic online advertising is wildly out of control — i.e. in a breaking the law sense — the UK’s data protection watchdog has marked half a year’s regulatory inaction with a blog post that entreats the adtech industry to come up with a solution to an “industry problem”. 

Casual readers of the ICO’s pre-Christmas message for European law-flouting adtech might be forgiven for thinking it looks a lot like the regulator telling the industry to ‘keep calm and carry on regulating yourselves’.

More informed readers, who understand that RTB is a process which (currently) entails systematic, privacy-eviscerating high velocity trading of people’s personal data for the purpose of targeting them with ads, might feel moved to point out that self-regulation is a core part of why adtech is in the abject mess it’s in.

Ergo, a data protection regulator calling for more of the same systemic failure does look rather, uh, uninspiring.

In the mildly worded blog post, Simon McDougall, the ICO’s executive director for technology and innovation — who does not appear to work anywhere near an enforcement department — includes such grand suggestions for adtech law-breakers as: “keep engaging with your trade associations”.

You’ll have to forgive us for not being overly convinced such a step will lead to any paradigm tilts to privacy — or “solutions that combine innovation and privacy”, as McDougall puts it — given episodes like this.

Another of the big ideas he has for the industry to get with the legal program is to suggest people working in adtech “challenge” senior management to “review their approach”.

Now we know employee activism is rather in vogue right now — at least at certain monopolistic tech giants who’ve scaled so big, and employ such large armies of lawyers, they’re essentially immune to moral and societal operational norms — but we’re not sure it’s the greatest look for the UK’s data watchdog to be encouraging adtech professionals to put their own jobs on the line instead of, y’know, doing its job and enforcing the law.

It’s possible that McDougall, a relatively recent recruit to the regulator, may not yet know it from his perch in the “technology and innovation” unit, but the ICO does have a powerful toolbox at its disposal these days. Including the ability, under the pan-EU General Data Protection Regulation framework, to levy fines of up to 4% of global turnover on entities it finds seriously violating the law.

It can also order a stop to law-violating data processing. And what better way to end the mass-scale privacy violations attached to programmatic advertising than by ordering personal data be stripped out of RTB requests, you might wonder?

It wouldn’t mean an end to being able to target ads online. Contextual targeting doesn’t require personal data — and has been used successfully by the likes of non-tracking search engine DuckDuckGo for years (and profitably so). It would just mean an end to the really creepy, stalkerish stuff. The stuff consumers hate — which also serves up horribly damaging societal effects, given that the mass profiling of Internet users enables push-button discrimination and exploitation of the vulnerable at vast scale.

Microtargeted ads are also, as we now know all too well, a pre-greased electronic conduit for attacks on democracy and society — enabling the spread of malicious disinformation.

The societal stakes couldn’t be higher. Yet the ICO appears content to keep calm and let the adtech industry carry on — no enforcement just biannual reminders of “concerns” about “lawfulness”.

To wit: “We have significant concerns about the lawfulness of the processing of special category data which we’ve seen in the industry, and the lack of explicit consent for that processing,” as McDougall admits in the post.

“We also have concerns about whether reliance on contractual clauses to justify onward data sharing is sufficient to comply with the law. We have not seen case studies that appear to adequately justify this.”

Set tone to: ‘Oopsy’.

The title of the ICO’s blog post — Adtech and the data protection debate – where next? — also incorporates contradictory framing as if to imply there is “debate” as to whether the industry needs to comply with data protection law. (Given the ICO’s own findings of “concern” that framing is itself concerning.)

So what can the adtech industry expect the ICO to actually do if it continues to fail to embed a “privacy by design approach in its use of RTB” (another of the blog post’s big suggestions) — and therefore keeps on, er, breaking the law?

Well, the ICO plans to make like a sponge over the “coming weeks”, per McDougall, who says it will spend time “absorbing all the information gathered and the rich conversations we’ve had throughout the year” and then shift into first gear — where it will be “evaluating all of the options available to us”.

No rush, eh.

A “further update” will then be put out in “early 2020” which will set out the ICO’s position — third time lucky perhaps?!

This update, we are informed, will also include “any action we’re taking”. So possibly still nothing, then.

“The future of RTB is both in the balance and in the hands of all the organisations involved,” McDougall writes — as if regulatory enforcement requires industry buy in.

UK taxpayers should be forgiven for wondering what exactly their data protection regulator is for at this point. Hopefully they’ll find out in a few months’ time.

Instreamatic signs deals to allow people to talk to adverts on streaming services like an Alexa

Most in tech would agree that following the launch of Alexa and Google Home devices the ‘Voice Era’ is here. Voice assistant usage is at 3.3 billion right now; by 2020 half of all searches are expected to be done via voice. And with younger generations growing up on voice (55% of teens use voice search daily now), there’s no turning back.

As we’ve reported, the voice-based ad market will grow to $19 billion in the U.S. by 2022, growing the market share from the $17 billion audio ad market and the $57 billion programmatic ad market.

That means that voice shopping is also set to explode, with the volume of voice-based spending growing twenty-fold over the next few years due to voice-based virtual assistant penetration, as well as the rapid consumer adoption of home-based smart speakers, the expansion of smart homes and the growing integration of virtual assistants into cars.

That, combined with the popularity of digital media – streaming music, podcasts, etc – has created greenfield opportunities for better brand engagement through audio. But brands have struggled to catch up, and there has not been many ways to capitalise on this.

So a team of people who co-founded and worked at Zvuk, a leading music streaming service in Eastern Europe, quickly understood why there is not a single profitable music streaming company in the world: subscription rates are low and advertisers are not excited about audio ads, due to the measurement challenges and intrusive ad experience.

So, they decided to create SF-based company Instreamatic, a startup which allows people to talk at adverts they see and get an AI-driven voice response, just as you might talk to an Alexa device. 

Thus, the AI powering Instreamatic’s voice-driven ads can interpret and anticipate the intent of a user’s words (and do so in the user’s natural language, so robotic “yes” and “no” responses aren’t needed). That means Instreamatic enables brands which advertise through digital audio channels (streaming music apps, podcasts, etc) to now have interactive (and continuous) voice dialogues with consumers.

Yes, it means you can talk to an advert like it was an Alexa.
 
Instead of an audio ad playing to a listener as a one-way communication (like every T.V. and radio ad before it), brands can now reach and engage with consumers by having voice-interactive conversations. Brands using Instreamatic can also continue conversations with consumers across channels and audio publishers – so fresh ad content is tailored to the full history of each listener’s past engagements and responses.

An advantage of the platform is that people can use their voice to set their advertising preferences. So, when a person says ‘I don’t want to hear about it ever again,’ brands can optimize their marketing strategy either by stopping all remarketing campaigns across all digital media channels targeted to that person, or by optimizing the communication strategy to offer something else instead of the product that was rejected. If the listener expressed interest or no interest, Instreamatic would know that and tailor future ads to match past engagement – providing a continuous dialogue with the user.

Its competitor is AdsWizz which allows users to shake their phones when they are interested in an ad. This effectively allows users to “click” when the audio ad is playing in the background. One of their recent case studies reported that shaking provided 3.95% interaction rates.
 
By contrast, Instreamatic’s voice dialogue marketing platform allows people to talk to audio advertising, skipping irrelevant ads and engaging in interesting ones. Their recent case study claimed a much higher 13.2% voice engagement rate this way.
 
The business model is thus: when advertisers buy voice dialogue ads on its ad exchange, it takes a commission from that ad spend. Publishers, brands and adtech companies can license the technology and Instreamatic charges them a licensing fee based on usage.

Instreamatic has now partnered with Gaana, India’s largest music and content streaming service, to integrate Instreamatic into Gaana’s platform. It’s also partnered with Triton Digital, a service provider to the audio streaming and podcast industry.

This follows similar deals with Pandora, Jacapps, Airkast,
and SurferNETWORK.

All these partnerships means the company can now reach 120 million monthly active users in the United States, 30M in Europe and 150 million in Asia.

Thet company is headquartered in San Francisco and London with a development team in Moscow and features Stas Tushinskiy as CEO and co-founder. Tushinskiy reated the digital audio advertising market in Russia prior to relocating to the U.S. with Instreamatic. International Business Development head and co-founder Simon Dunlop previously founded Bookmate, a subscription-based reading and audiobook platform, and DITelegraph Moscow Tech Hub, and Zvuk.

Virtual product placement is coming for TV and movies and Ryff has raised cash to put it there

In a world where ad rates are declining for traditional broadcast media, the corporations responsible for making the fictions that millions devour daily need to find a new business model.

Subscription services are on the rise — with every major broadcaster launching an on-demand service — and so are ad-supported video streaming services to replace the traditional networks.

But there’s another holy grail of the advertising industry, long thought to be too technologically difficult to achieve, that may finally be within reach. It’s the on-demand product placement of branded goods in a video, and it’s the technology that Ryff has been developing since it was founded in early 2018.

Product placement is an increasingly big business in the U.S. raking in some $11.44 billion in 2019, according to data collected by Statista. That figure is up from $4.75 billion in 2012. The same report indicated that roughly 49% of Americans took action after seeing product placement in media.

The effectiveness of product placement has even been proven by researchers from Indiana University and Emory University. They found that “prominent product placement embedded in television programming does have a net positive impact on online conversations and web traffic for the brand.”

And while streaming services enjoy the dollars their subscribers are throwing at them, they’re also looking at ways to diversify their revenue streams. Netflix and Hulu are both expanding their product marketing divisions and analysts like those from Forrester Research predict that product placement will be a huge moneymaker for the company as traditional ad rates decline.

There are companies that handle product placement already. Startups like Branded Entertainment Network, which works with brands and producers to place real brands into contextually relevant scenes in movies and television, and Mirriad, which adds branded billboards to scenes, are working to bring more money to platforms and producers.

Ryff takes the technology to the next level, using computer vision, machine learning, and rendering technologies to identify objects in a scene and replace them with branded products that can be tailored based on customer data.

“The infusion of SVOD/streaming platforms into the market, combined with platforms like Netflix that are unsuccessfully trying to grow their subscriber base will force those same platforms to explore and embrace alternative revenue streams,” said Marlon Nichols, Managing General Partner at MaC Venture Capital, and a new director on the Ryff board. “In addition, consumers on paid platforms do not want their content consumption interrupted by ads. As such, product placement will be an important growth channel and Ryff’s new marketplace and unique technology set it up to be the unequivocal growth market leader.” 

To continue its technology development and ramp up sales and marketing the company has raised $5 million in financing. According to Crunchbase, Ryff had previously raised $3.6 million from investors including a subsidiary of the Mahindra Group and undisclosed investors. The new financing came from Valor Siren Ventures, MaC Venture Capital, Moneta Ventures and Vulcan Capital.

“Ryff’s offering is well-timed with the rapidly increasing demand for solutions that extend the reach of a brand’s content and drive business results,” said Uday Ghare, vice president for media and entertainment at Tech Mahindra, in a statement at the time of the company’s investment. “We believe the market will continue to see a shift of brand dollars to both content marketing and programmatic advertising as brands increase their reliance on content-centric programs and look to scale those efforts.”

Ryff’s ads can be tailored to the viewer’s taste, the platform on which video is being distributed, the geography of the broadcast, the date and time of the broadcast and a broader demographic profile, according to the company. Basically it’s like adwords for videos.

In a blog post writing about the rationale behind his investment firm’s capital commitment to the company, Marlon Nichols of MaC Ventures wrote:

Imagine a future where an IP owner can maximize the value of its content by putting in on the Ryff marketplace, where that content will be mapped for dozens if not hundreds of product placement opportunities and be layered with restrictions that comply with creative needs . Those opportunities will be ranked and priced by their effectiveness to drive marketing goals for brands. Brands can bid on in-video placement opportunities that fit their marketing strategies and budgets. 3D brand assets can be uploaded and inserted dynamically into content right before the moment of video delivery

Ryff’s first disclosed partnership is with the “reality” television producer Endemol Shine. 

“Ryff successfully takes the concept of product placement, the only advertising format that can’t be skipped by the viewer, and delivers a scalable and adaptable advertising solution that can be applied to any content, at any time and in any market,” said Roy Taylor, founder and CEO of Ryffm, in a statement. “The result benefits all – content free from annoying distractions, audience-specific brand placement and delivering a new means towards monetizing video assets.” 

Will the 2020s be online advertising’s holistic decade?

With less than two months left in the decade, advertising is again entering a new phase of rapid expansion with customer experience front and center.

The explosion of data and identity management, combined with technical advancements in real-time signal detection and machine learning, present new opportunities to respond to consumers, but mastering this ability enables marketers to create “magic moments” — instances of hyper-relevant content, delivered at the perfect time and place. 

We’ll see evolutions on the back end in terms of delivery and measurement — as well as on the consumer-facing end — through new creative deployments that enhance the brick-and-mortar shopping trip. Marketers will be held to a higher standard, both by clients demanding world-class performance and proof, as well as consumers who want relevancy, helpfulness and privacy from their brand relationships. 

Achieving this balance won’t be an easy task, but the most progressive marketers will succeed in driving this industry toward a more customer-centric future because they took steps to evolve before it was too late. With that in mind, here are five ways we expect advertising to become more holistic in the 2020s: 

Smart data will take priority over big data

Most marketers have heard the adage, “garbage in, garbage out.” For too long, the industry relied on sheer quantity of data with no quality metrics for making key audience assumptions. This mentality has had a detrimental effect on our industry, creating an ecosystem where people simply hate ads and brands focus on viewability over ROI.

To truly understand our audiences, we must first turn data from multi-channel interactions into smart, actionable insights. This involves not only understanding who the customer is, but what motivates them. 

Progressive marketers will continue to invest heavily in identity graphs to tie critical data and behaviors to individual profiles across channels. Using data science and machine learning, marketers will then be able to advance their knowledge about consumers to new levels, employing new messaging tactics based not only on value, but also on what inspires action. Key nuances, like distinguishing a deal-seeker from a value-seeker, will lead to more engaging personalized experiences and ultimately better ROI for advertisers.

We’ll see a flurry of investment in real-time engagement

We live in a world where our technology predicts where we are going, what we are seeking and how long it will take to get there by recognizing our patterns and everyday behaviors. The benefits in terms of convenience and knowledge are addictive. Look no further than email, social and Alexa to see how real-time awareness and time savings from these interactions impact our everyday lives.  

For marketers, capturing this lightning in a bottle has always been elusive — until now. The rise of real-time advertising, customer data platforms (CDPs), data science and machine learning have created the ability to detect purchases as well as online and real world location signals in real-time. This enables marketers to not only predict the next shopping trip, but what a consumer is likely to buy, when it matters most.

These sense-and-respond capabilities will enable progressive marketers to create experiences of enormous value at the moments that matter, such as triggering an offer of relevance upon entering a store or delivering a tailored experience at a specific time and location. The new decade will bring about massive investments into these technologies given their immediate ability to influence consumers during the actual purchase process. We’ll see budgets being specifically carved out to support real-time advertising and technologies as marketers optimize and convert users with greater effectiveness.  

For consumers, it means that the in-store experience will continue to become more interactive, with mobile devices as the connecting point between e-commerce and brick and mortar. Brands that thrive in this environment will win by delivering meaningful creative that connects both online and offline worlds in a helpful and relevant way.

Cutting-edge tech will create new ad experiences

Millions downloaded dozens of Android apps on Google Play infected with adware

Security researchers have found dozens of Android apps in the Google Play store serving ads to unsuspecting victims as part of a money-making scheme.

ESET researchers found 42 apps containing adware, which they say have been downloaded over 8 million times since they first debuted in July 2018.

These apps look normal but act sneakily. Once an unsuspecting user installs an adware-infected app, the app will serve full-screen ads on the device’s display at semi-random intervals. Often the apps will delete their shortcut icon, making it more difficult to remove. The adware-infected apps will also mimic Facebook and Google’s apps to avoid suspicion, likely as a way to detract from the actual ad-serving app and to keep the app the device for as long as possible.

In the background, the apps were also sending back data about the user’s device — including if certain apps are installed and if the device allows apps from non-app store sources — which could be used to install more malicious software on a device.

“The adware functionality is the same in all the apps we analyzed,” said Lukas Stefanko, one of ESET’s security researchers.

The researchers also found that the apps would check to see if an affected device was connected to Google’s servers in an effort to prevent detection. If the apps think they are being tested by Google Play’s security mechanisms, which ostensibly keep the app store free from malicious apps, the adware payload will not be triggered.

Some of those apps include Video Downloader Master, which had five million downloads; and Ringtone Maker Pro, SaveInsta and Tank Classic, which had 500,000 downloads each.

The researchers say a Vietnamese college student may be behind the adware campaign.

Google removed all of the offending apps but the researchers warned that many were still available from third-party app stores. A spokesperson confirmed all of the apps have been removed, but the search and mobile giant does not usually comment beyond acknowledging their removal.

Read more:

Opera’s desktop browser gets built-in tracking protection

Browser maker Opera today announced the launch of version 68 of its flagship desktop browser. The marquee feature of the launch is the addition of a tracker blocker that will make it harder for advertisers and others to track you while you browse the web — and which has the additional benefit of speeding up your browsing session. Indeed, Opera argues that turning on both the tracking protection and the built-in ad blocker can speed up page loads by up to 23 percent.

The new tracking protection feature is off by default (as is the existing ad blocker). The tracking feature uses the EasyPrivacy Tracking Protection List, which has been around for quite a few years now.

“We consider the tracker blocker to be a browser feature which can be kept on at all times, “writes Opera PC product manager Joanna Czajka. “Our browser, however, also has plenty of extended privacy features which come in handy when someone feels the need to increase the privacy of their browsing even further.”

In addition to the new tracking protection, which is increasingly becoming standard among browser vendors (and which is surely putting some additional pressure on Google and its Chrome browser), Opera is also introducing a new screenshotting feature with this update. That’s not an unusual feature, but it’s a pretty full-featured implementation, with the ability to blur parts of a page and draw on the screenshots.

opera screenshot

 

OzoneAI wants companies to pay you for your data, upending the ad model

Imagine this. Instead of giving away your personal data so web giants can show you ads, you cut out the middle person and allow advertisers to pay you directly for your data.

It’s a novel idea for a new startup that bills itself as a “data privacy” company.

OzoneAI says it preserves users’ privacy by allowing them more granular controls over who gets their data. In the startup’s utopian vision, companies can skip over the major advertising giants like Google and Facebook and buy access to anonymized data from the users themselves. That could mean companies buying your Spotify playlists, your Amazon wish list, or your access to your social media. The user is paid for the access, and the company gets to use the data for better targeting their ads.

The company made its public debut at Disrupt SF on the Startup Battlefield stage.

The startup seeks to capitalize on the wave in recent years of mistrust over online ads. As websites have become more aggressive in their advertising by persistently tracking users and collecting personal data, users have fought back with ad-blockers and privacy apps.

OzoneAI thinks there can be a happy medium between selling and protecting your data. With an app, users can grant companies access to their data and get paid for it. In return, companies get anonymized data which they can use for better targeting consumers.

By taking big tech out of the equation, the startup thinks it can make advertising more efficient for everyone.

But not everyone will see it that way. The privacy-minded with their ad blockers aren’t likely to lower their own bar to allow advertisers any more access to their data than is necessary. But for those who want to make a quick buck, will their actions be motivated more by making money and less about privacy?

When asked, the company’s founders Lyndon Oh and Ben Colman, who both previously worked for Google, denied it was encouraging users.

“However much activity you want to sell, that’s completely up to you,” the founders said. “You are anonymized as an identity; however, your data is not. The fact that you watched ‘The Avengers’ five times last week is not anonymized — you are selling that directly.”

Users’ data is fed into the machine learning engine to make recommendations for other companies and services, allowing the process to match activity to another business. OzoneAI makes its money by charging a 30% cut from the businesses who subscribe to a user’s data, which they say still provides better value than the “spray and pay” model that companies who want to advertise on Facebook and Google are subjected to.

The user can use the OzoneAI app to log in to their various social networks, shopping sites, email provider and anything else. That authorizes OzoneAI to vacuum up your data and begin processing it.

Unsurprisingly, many will turn their nose up at the concept of having a startup they’ve never heard of be effectively given unfettered access to all their online accounts so they can sell your data directly to companies hungry to advertise to you. The startup says it, like any company with similar access to the firehose of a person’s online life, has access to that data but immediately writes the data to its servers in an encrypted way. The user retains the private key to their cloud-stored encrypted data, so OzoneAI says it can’t access the user’s data. Through the app, the user can also “detonate” and destroy any of their collected data.

But by giving users control of their data, the user has to trust OzoneAI more than the existing advertising system. Given how broken the existing system is, it likely wouldn’t take much trust at all. But it’s an uphill battle for an emerging startup with not much of a name. And one hiccup could send that trust tanking.

The founders said other tech companies are “doing the same thing,” and that’s reason enough why users should trust OzoneAI.

But “another company does it” doesn’t mean it’s the right thing. OzoneAI was “just putting users directly in front of the business,” the founders said.

The old saying goes, “If you’re not paying, you are the product.” And yet as much as you are paying — with your data — then you inexplicably are still the product.

To curb lobbying power, Elizabeth Warren wants to reinstate the Office of Technology Assessment

In a move to correct the imbalance of power between technologically sophisticated corporations and the lawmakers who regulate them, presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren is proposing that Congress reinstate the Office of Technology Assessment.

It’s a move that gets deep into the weeds of how policy making in Washington works, but it’s something that Warren sees as essential to leveling the playing field between well-paid corporate lobbyists who are experts in their fields and over-worked under-staffed congressional members who lack independent analysts to explain highly technical issues.

“Lobbyists are filling in the gaps in congressional resources and expertise by providing Congress information from the perspective of their paying corporate clients. So let’s fix it,” writes Warren.

It’s one of the key planks in Warren’s latest policy proposal and an attempt to tip the scales against corporations and their lobbyists. With the move Warren clearly has her eye on technology companies and their representatives, who often are the very people Congressional lawmakers rely on to explain how rule-making would impact their industries.

“[Members] of Congress aren’t just dependent on corporate lobbyist propaganda because they’re bought and paid for. It’s also because of a successful, decades-long campaign to starve Congress of the resources and expertise needed to independently evaluate complex public policy questions,” Warren writes.

“For every bad faith actor in Congress bought off by the big banks, there are others who are genuinely trying to grapple with the technical aspects of financial reform. But as the issues facing Congress have grown more complex, resources to objectively and independently analyze them have been slashed. Republicans eliminated an independent office of experts dedicated to advising Congress on technical and scientific information,” the Senator says.

The lack of independent analysis stymies Congressional oversight in areas from banking and finance reform, to the oversight of technology companies, to the potential to effectively pass laws that will respond to the threat of climate change. Committees that oversee science and technology have seen their staff levels fall by over 40 percent in the past decade, according to Warren and staff salaries have failed to keep up with inflation, meaning that policymakers in Washington can’t compete for the same level of talent that private companies and lobbyists can afford several times over.

Sen. Warren saw this firsthand when she worked at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau .

“Financial reform was complicated, and the bank lobbyists used a clever technique: They bombarded the members of Congress with complex arguments filled with obscure terms. Whenever a congressman pushed back on an idea, the lobbyists would explain that although the congressman seemed to be making a good point, he didn’t really understand the complex financial system,” she writes. “And keep in mind, the lobbyists would tell the congressman, that if you get this wrong, you will bring down the global economy.”

The inability of lawmakers to understand basic facts about the technologies they’re tasked with regulating was on full display during the Senate hearings into the role technology companies played in the Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Issues from net neutrality to end-to-end encryption, or online advertising to the reduction of carbon emissions all rely on Congress having a sound understanding of those issues and how regulation may change an industry.

Right now, it’s case of which multi-billion dollar company can buy the best lobbyists — as is the case with Alphabet and Yelp or Facebook and Snap.

Under the auspices of Warren’s anti-corruption plan, the Senator is calling for the reinstatement and modernization of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, a significant increase to salaries for congressional staffers and stronger funding for agencies that support congressional lawmaking.

The OTA was created in the seventies to help members of Congress understand science and technology issues that they’d be regulating. Over the tenure of the agency, it created over 750 reports — including two landmark studies on the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming in the 90s, which brought it to the attention of conservative lawmakers that defunded it in 1995.

At the time, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said the agency was “used by liberals to cover up political ideology.”

Under Warren’s plan the OTA would be lead by an independent director to avoid partisan manipulation. The newly re-formed agency would have the power to commission its own reports and respond to requests from lawmakers to weigh in on rule-making, help congressional legislators prepare for hearings, and write regulatory letters.

Warren also calls for funding to be increased for the other congressional support agencies — the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office. Combined these agencies have lost half of their staff.

Money for the increased activities of the agencies would come from a tax on “excessive lobbying”. The . goal would be “to reverse these cuts and further strengthen support agencies that members of Congress rely on for independent information,” according to the Warren plan.

“These reforms are vital parts of my plan to free our government from the grip of lobbyists – and restore the public’s trust in its government in the process,” Warren writes.