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From User ID to RTB, 2021 is a critical year for progress

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January 28, 2021 | 5 min read

This time last year we saw two big announcements in the world of digital advertising. Google set the clock on third-party cookies, starting the race to find alternative User ID solutions that will deliver for both advertisers and audiences. Meanwhile, on a more local basis, we at IAB UK revealed our six-point action plan in response to the ICOs ‘Update report into ad tech and real-time bidding’. In it, we committed to working with our members to engage the industry and ensure that all real-time bidding players understand how to meet their GDPR and ePrivacy in practice.


For many in our industry, these two areas looked set to dominate 2020 and - aside from the impact and upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic - they largely did. So what’s happened so far? And what can we expect in 2021?

Let’s focus on User ID first. The past year has been a process of exploration and education in this area. While the deprecation of third-party cookies is undoubtedly a huge challenge for the digital ad industry to navigate, it’s also a massive opportunity to redraw the ecosystem around user experience and build a better ad-funded web for all parties - consumers, advertisers and publishers.

As an industry, we first needed to look beyond technical practicalities and root our objectives in the bigger picture of what the ad-funded web should - and needs to - be. At IAB UK, we established the core principles that we believe any viable User ID solution must meet in order to bring about meaningful change. These principles are rooted in transparency, user control and improving the consumer experience.

We have since been feeding into and facilitating our members’ involvement in global working groups - IAB Tech Lab’s Project Rearc and Google’s Privacy Sandbox - to explore and build on alternative User ID solutions with cross-industry, international support.

Now, with one year to go until the cookie deadline, expect to see a step-change in the messaging and outputs from both of these groups. To put it simply, it is the time for action - a message that was loud and clear from both Google and IAB Tech Lab at a webinar we held a few weeks ago. It’s now for the industry to lean into the change that’s coming, get involved in trials of possible long-term solutions and engage with the IAB about how we can best support businesses during this transition. You can find out more about how to get involved here.

As the quest to find suitable ID alternatives has accelerated, the industry’s work to deliver on our response to the ICO’s RTB concerns has remained crucial. Despite the ICO’s decision to pause further investigation into ad tech and RTB back in May, due to the resource pressures from COVID-19, delivering on the actions we had already laid out was, and remains, imperative. So far we’ve worked with IAB members to produce practical guidance on cookies and consent, special category data and, most recently, data protection impact assessments. We are currently continuing to explore how to help companies identify and mitigate risks relating to special category data in practice, will be releasing guidance on legitimate interests assessments shortly, and are looking at how we can support members further with training or workshops based on our guidance.

As we start 2021, it’s critical that companies involved in real-time bidding are engaging with these resources and ensuring that they are meeting their obligations under GDPR and ePrivacy legislation to avoid repercussions. While this has been our ongoing message throughout the past year, there is now an added urgency to act. As the ICO returns its attention to the ad tech space, expect to see a step-change in its approach. If you haven’t already, we urge you to review your processes and make any necessary changes to your practices as soon as possible.

Between them, User ID and RTB are among the most important and defining areas of work for our industry and 2021 is a critical year for further progress. By resolving to take action, get involved with cross-industry initiatives and lean into change, we can jointly create a better ad tech ecosystem and, in doing so, take a big step towards building a sustainable future for digital advertising.

Tina Lakhani, head of ad tech, and Christie Dennehy-Neil, head of policy & regulation at IAB UK

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The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB UK) is the industry body for digital advertising, committed to building a sustainable future for digital advertising. We do this by bringing the industry together through our 1,200 members including media owners, agencies and brands.

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