Private property: Why consumer privacy is tech's next frontier

What is the one thing that all advertisers, content creators, application developers, and tech companies should all wake up in the morning thinking about?

People's privacy.


It’s the single greatest thing getting in the way between creators and consumers. Today, more than three-quarters of Americans worry about their online privacy. This unprecedented mistrust from the public is having a dismal effect on our industry. And yet, we’re the ones causing this breach of trust. Our problem is self-made.

So how do we solve it? It’s clear we must reframe our approach to privacy. Many brands, publishers, and technology companies see privacy tools as an obstacle between them and a sale: something for which to find a work-around. However, the “work-around” approach isn’t helping our predicament, so I propose something different.

What if we stopped thinking about privacy as the problem, and started thinking about privacy as a service… a service we might even be able to help provide? Privacy offerings are clearly wanted by consumers. And as technologists and creators, isn’t it in our best interest to provide the public with the services and products they need and ask for?

Along with this idea, if we want to reestablish trust with the consumer, what better way than by protecting them, or giving them agency over their own choices? A recent Pew Research study found that 91% of adults feel that they have lost control over how their personal information is collected and used by companies. 88% of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that it would be very difficult to remove inaccurate information about them online….so why don’t we do something about that?

Technology offerings in the privacy space could also prove to be wildly inventive and innovative. Offerings could be as diverse, and nuanced as the needs of the consumers asking for them. While some people want total privacy protection, others might want to control their own personal information, and still others want their taste profiles to be selective… only available to the brands they love, or developers who are creating products they’re seeking. The possibilities are endless.

With these possibilities comes an even bigger promise: advertising as a service. Some may balk at this suggestion. And yet, this shows how removed we are from our purpose and the history of our industry. After all, advertising was created to serve the people, and to educate the public about useful products and services. In many ways, approaching advertising solutions from the spirit of public service is a return to the origin of the industry. If we look back, ancient Egyptians invented advertising by carving notices of public importance in steel: the intent was to help spread important, useful information. Likewise, advertising in the industrial era spread news of products that would improve Americans’ standard of living. Billboards spurred the rise of automobiles and announced the invention of the light bulb. So, how can we, in our approach to privacy, improve the quality of life of consumers in the same way these technologies improved the lives of Ancient Egyptians and Americans in the past?

To start, let’s imagine a different model when it comes to privacy. Imagine we live in a society where consumers are protected… by the market itself. Respected. Our privacy isn’t under siege, it’s enhanced; not blocked, but controlled by the consumer. Imagine a world where we only see ads that we choose to see. Because advertising is an informative service, and there are offerings in place that allow people to curate their digital experience. I have a feeling if we treated consumers with this level of respect, like partners, the epidemic of ad-blocking would cease. Brands and content creators would be able to achieve some level of trust with the consumer.

This “What if” experiment is a step in the right direction, but it’s only a beginning. There are more solutions, and versions of this vision. And as trailblazers, and creators in the industry, it’s up to us to discover them. If we can, it will be our industry’s next big win.

Tim McQuillen is chief knowledge officer at Rubicon Project and head of the Garage Innovation Lab

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