How we're supporting the tech industry’s efforts to improve adtech and move away from problematic models of tracking-based ads
A public/private coalition formed earlier this year is gaining traction, including support from Avast. The Tracking-free Ads Coalition was initially created by 20 members of the European Parliament with a goal to enact stronger regulation of tracking online advertising. It now has the support of more than 40 other organizations that are looking to end the pervasive tracking and data mining that can be found in online advertising.
Avast Chief Privacy Officer Shane McNamee said, “We heartily support the aims of this coalition to protect digital citizens from excessive online tracking. We want to support the tech industry’s efforts to improve adtech and move away from problematic models of highly-individualized tracking-based ads.” Avast joins other industry supporters, such as Tutanota, eBlocker and Brand Base. The coalition also has support from a number of non-governmental and privacy-focused organizations such as Wikimedia Foundation, Amnesty International, The Privacy Collective, and the Open Rights Group.
The EU has taken a number of steps over the years towards the goal of creating an online ecosystem that better respects the rights of internet users. Since 2009, EU law has mandated that website owners get permission from users for cookies and similar types of tracking, however enforcement was not consistent and cookie banners have not been universally welcomed by those they were intended to protect, nor totally effective in their aims. More recently, the General Data Protection Regulation has helped in the push for effective protections of internet users from excessive tracking. The Tracking-Free Ads Coalition is the latest evolution.
The coalition has shared research showing how these problematic trends in online advertising have been responsible for defunding traditional journalism. As stated on its website, “The decline of publishers’ ad revenues is to a large extent caused by their incredible dependence on the tracking ad industry — most importantly Google and Facebook.” The group also notes that this kind of advertising model can also reward bad behavior, such as by rewarding bots, click-bait, and misinformation, as well as pulling revenue away from legitimate publishers.
The evolution of tracking in online ads has come a long way since the first introduction of browser-based cookies not too long after the web became popular in the mid-1990s. You might not remember DoubleClick, a company that developed one of the first ad network server technologies using browser cookies. Eventually, it was acquired by Google for $3.1 billion in 2008. Subsequent tracking technologies have only proved to be more valuable to advertisers.
There are ways to prevent your activities from being tracked. For example, you can use a VPN to anonymize your connections, run your browser in a virtual machine, limit what browsing you do on your mobile device (which has more precision about your movements) or make modifications to your default browser to make your actions more private.
There are also numerous ways to reclaim your privacy by how you set up your various social media accounts. Getting these settings right isn’t always simple and will take some effort to ensure that you have them correctly specified. Also, understanding the difference between privacy and anonymity is critical: Just because an advertiser doesn’t know exactly who you are doesn’t mean that they might not be building a profile used to serve you with targeted ads or to push manipulative messaging.
As McNamee noted regarding Avast’s support for the Tracking-free Ads Coalition, putting tools in the hands of users can only go so far, so support for this work is crucial. “On the one hand, we provide privacy tools to give users the ability to protect themselves, but on the other hand we also acknowledge that there are systemic problems with tracking in the adtech ecosystem which users cannot and should not have to combat on their own, so we support policymakers and civil society movements towards reshaping the online environment for the better.”