Why Cookies Are Better for Users Than Social Data

Your consumers have gotten smart to retargeting tactics and tracking activities. To put it simply, they aren’t happy about it.

Several months ago I clicked on a Buddist bracelet ad on Instagram out of curiosity. Since then I’ve had my social feeds flooded with dozens of ads for the same product. As someone with an affinity for the power of advertising technology, the use of retargeting tactics made me smile. But it’s easy to understand why consumers might feel fatigued, annoyed and frankly pissed off at being stalked by ads.

The privacy threat has a name—cookies; it’s the wrong one

Most users don’t understand advertising technology so public opinion has attached a name to the privacy threat—cookies.

Cookies are a piece of software code that websites attach to your browser page with the intent of tracking certain elements of your navigation on an anonymous basis. Cookies allow advertisers to show you relevant ads that correspond to your interests and help publishers generate more revenue.

But there’s a common misconception: Cookies don’t give any personal identifying information to publishers or advertising platforms. They simply track technical information such as what types of content a particular browser has visited.

It would be extremely difficult to identify a person based solely on this information because cookies aren’t attached to any identifiers that could be used to pinpoint a physical person. Users can also control and delete them, which makes it hard to see why there’s a perception that they cause a significant threat to privacy.

The real privacy threat is Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Linkedin’s use of single sign-on. The feature allows them to know your name, your friends, your opinions, where you live and even where and when you travel.

In addition to giving them permission at the time you signed on, these platforms are on apps that live on your mobile device, which has a mobile device ID provided by smartphone operating systems. They can easily identify who you are and that is the battle we need to fight.

But despite the threats that came to light during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, journalists and politicians continue to fight the wrong battle.

The so-called cookie war is damaging the online media and independent web advertising platforms that aim to serve users relevant content, instead of protecting citizens against the misuse of their data and social media intrusions.

Protecting user privacy, advertiser, publisher and platform interests

Reversing the public opinion about cookies won’t be easy. The public is concerned. Politicians are promoting anti-cookie laws like GDPR in Europe and the CCPA in California. Apple is using its clout to promote its newest anti-tracking update for Safari.

But all of this fuss is focused on the wrong target. Cookies are merely old and clumsy technology that slows down websites.

Google Chrome recently put forward a proposal to advance privacy on the web while protecting advertiser and publisher interests. The proposed update would gather users’ online data within the browser and restrict outside companies from processing that information through cookies. Chrome would then provide features directly in the browser for handling key advertising mechanisms like tracking, attribution, fraud detection and so on. The individual’s browser would retain information about his or her personal tastes and only be revealed once the group contained more than a thousand people.

If data is only accessed and manipulated in the larger group, the (theoretical) risk that analyzing cookie data could reveal personal data would disappear. In this proposed environment, advertisers would still be able to show relevant ads to users but Google Chrome would become the main clearinghouse for audience targeting.

At Teads, we believe that grouping user data is a positive advancement, but strongly think that for it to succeed, it also needs to apply to apps—including Facebook and YouTube.

As it currently stands, GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) makes billions of dollars selling consumer data to advertisers at the 1:1 level. As an industry, we need to inform consumers about these practices so they too can push these big tech companies to adopt similar policies of targeting groups of users rather than the individual.

Communicating with politicians about the difference between good and bad targeting is also essential for creating an environment in which advertisers generate revenues for publishers while protecting user privacy.