Why the digital advertising industry needs to heed Martha Lane Fox's Dot Everyone challenge
I hear the gentle thud of a gauntlet being laid down for us.
This year’s Dimbleby Lecture was delivered, to well-deserved praise, by Baroness Martha Lane Fox. Martha is digital royalty, having co-founded Lastminute.com, served as digital champion for the last two governments and founded Go On UK, a digital skills charity.
Her proposition is that Britain can leapfrog the rest of the world in internet skills, but that we need a new kind of national institution, which she called ‘Dot Everyone’ to rebalance the dialogue between private and public voices. She laments the slow pace of governments, saying that their failure to understand the issues has passed the initiative to companies like Google and Facebook to write the answers.
Social media lit up around her speech, which also foresaw a significantly greater role for women in shaping future technology.
It is extremely important that we in the advertising business participate constructively in this dialogue. We should fully back her concept of a non-statutory body leading the UK charge as it is so much better that a broad forum tackles the ‘genuinely thorny issues’ the internet throws up, than that this is left to governments.
Last week, the Advertising Association Council met with powerful representatives of public concerns around advertising to children for a session that generated more light than heat. We can do this and we must, because a public whose voice is not heard will pressure parliaments into laws whose consequences will not be understood until they arrest internet development.
The self-regulation of advertising is a privilege. It should be used not to try and get away with as much as we can, or blind-side regulators. In fact, to continue to satisfy the public conscience that we are worthy custodians of our own regulation, we must listen carefully and continually to the concerns of web users about advertising practices and move fast to remedy them.
Our track record at fixing our own glitches is mainly good, all the more on such a fast moving stage. The online AdChoices programme across EU markets and beyond is an effective and proportionate initiative to help users shape the advertising they receive.
Advertising is the currency of the web. The providers of the free online treasure that is now part of our daily lives need a return on their investment. The IAB recently published its YouGov study on what users would pay for the services currently funded by advertising. ‘Not much’, came the clear reply. 88p a month for social media, £1.33 per month for search! So advertising is going to remain as important to the web as electricity, not because it suits us, but because it suits the vast majority of web users. This is a point that must be at the heart of the European Commission’s Digital Single Market approach.
But if we take this for granted, we risk handing the writing of our rule book to transient regulators. The mantra of self-regulation – ‘legal decent honest and truthful’ now needs upgrading to embrace best online practice – ‘respectful’, honouring individuals’ personal preferences.
Right now, failure to frequency cap is a glitch that needs fixing or technology that should be building relationships will build only resentment. It makes no sense that brands should be prevented from using targeting technology to make advertising investment work better for their business and – on the principle that a relevant ad is better than random one – for users. Yet this is exactly where Europe’s new data protection reforms are heading, interpreting such targeted advertising as a violation of personal privacy.
Martha Lane Fox has laid down a gauntlet to all of us, including ad businesses. We should pick it up in a spirit of collaboration to do our part to preserve what Martha calls ‘the promise of the internet – openness, transparency, freedom and universality’. This promise also applies to advertisers as an essential part of the Dot Everyone infrastructure, but we must recognise and comply with expectations of good brand behaviour, and apply ourselves to remaining a trusted part of the continuing conversation.
Richard Eyre is chairman of the IAB UK