Data & Tech

Why the IAB’s CEO is “in a bazooka fight” with privacy activists, regulators, and Apple

“The use of hyperbole and the use of exaggeration is at my discretion,” he told us.
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Francis Scialabba

· 8 min read

To hear it from David Cohen, the CEO of the IAB, whatever happens in the next one to two years could fundamentally alter the digital economy—be it regulatory scrutiny, consumer awareness of personal data and privacy, or loss of tracking attributed to the rewiring of the advertising ecosystem. Sounds like fun.

Cohen voiced these concerns in a hair-singeing speech delivered at the IAB’s annual leadership meeting in Marco Island, Florida, last week, calling out a laundry list of “extremists” and “political opportunists” who, in his view, “have made it their mission to cripple the advertising industry and eliminate it from the American economy and culture.”

He named everyone from Sen. Ted Cruz and FTC Chair Lina Khan to Apple, which has seismically altered the ad industry by letting users opt out of online tracking.

His comments spurred the ANA and 4A’s to release a joint statement in which they criticized the tone and content of Cohen’s speech and its “polarizing political rhetoric.” Marketing Brew chatted with Cohen about his speech (which can be read in full here) and what he was hoping to achieve.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

AdExchanger called the speech “unapologetic,” while Ebiquity’s chief product officer described the use of the word “extremist” as “quite possibly dangerous” on LinkedIn. I just want to fact-check a line here: “Extremists are winning the battle for the hearts and minds in Washington, DC, and beyond.” Are we reading the same speech?

We are. It goes without saying that this is my opinion…I do believe that we live in a world of sensationalism and extremism, and I do think that a more moderate approach—a strategic, sound approach—is probably warranted. Outside of the sensationalism of the speech itself, the hope is that we have a pragmatic and practical approach to data use. And we are at least a decade behind in terms of a national data privacy law. My hope, at the end of the day, is that we get Washington to move and we get all the large players to collaborate.

Almost like fighting fire with fire, in a sense?

If you have a knife fight, you want to have a knife. If you’re in a battle with bazookas, you want a bazooka. You want to be able to meet the conversation where it sits. And I do think there was an element of that.

In your speech, you mentioned a few “extremists,” and then you named Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Ted Cruz, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Chief of Staff for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Asad Ramzanali. Is there anyone else you feel should be included?

Yes, many…There are extremists who are privacy zealots, who [think] the most important thing in the world is to end this thing that we call surveillance capitalism, surveillance advertising—“we should not be using consumers’ data, period, full stop.”

I do think that the specific politicians that I called out are just examples of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Most of them are very vocal about Big Tech, about the big platforms, about surveillance advertising, about the ills of social media. I wouldn’t say that they are extremists; I do think that they have some views that I don’t agree with. But there’s plenty of other privacy zealots who would be more characteristic of the extremists that I suggested.

You mentioned the Federal Trade Commission, which has recently taken a closer look at digital advertising, but specifically data brokers, some of which have been accused of collecting and selling sensitive health data. Do you think that the digital advertising industry has been slow to regulate itself?

I don’t think so. I think that self-regulation absolutely has played a part in our evolution. No matter what industry we talk about, there will be bad actors. There will be folks that will use data for purposes that it wasn’t designed for. And of course, we are not supportive of that. We are supportive of the responsible use of data for advertising purposes. And ultimately, it’s [up to] the consumer to decide: Does the value proposition make sense?

Our whole take on the FTC is that they are overreaching and probably trying to fill the void that has been left by our inability to pass national legislation [in] Congress. And I think that there’s this kind of undercurrent of sensationalism. The language that you see coming out of the FTC is “guilty before proven innocent.”...All we’re saying is, ultimately, advertising supports a whole lot of things in our ecosystem…Painting the ad-supported, free, and open internet with a broad brushstroke is something that we’re trying to advise against.

You also said that Apple “exemplifies the cynicism and hypocrisy that underpins the prevailing extremist view.” Why did you single out Apple?

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Apple, for a long time, has been very anti-advertising in public. Behind the scenes, in their own ecosystem, with their own data, they have been quietly, or not so quietly, building a significant advertising business.

I have always said, and I said to Apple when we talked to them nearly three years ago, that the actions of large digital platforms need to serve many masters. They need to serve consumers, they need to serve regulators, and [they need] to serve the industry…The purpose of calling them out was to personify some of this kind of hypocrisy and to bring them to the table. And I’m happy to report that we have connected with Apple since [the IAB’s conference] and are scheduling a meeting in February to talk about how we can do that. So if that was one of the goals, mission accomplished.

What are you looking for from that meeting? What are you going to bring up?

Wouldn’t you like to know? The specifics are things that, obviously, I’m not at liberty to discuss. We have all of the big digital players at our table, and we have not had Apple at the table…We’d love to have Apple in the mix, working with us to define what a future toolkit looks like in this new world as opposed to them just doing their own thing in their own ecosystem.

Obviously, you represent the needs of advertisers, but when I explain app tracking and the iOS updates to my mom, for example, she feels comfortable making her own decision in terms of consenting or not consenting to ad tracking. So why do you think Apple's stance on privacy is cynical?

If there’s one thing that we have done quite poorly, as an industry, I would say [it’s] educating consumers on the value proposition of data sharing and personalized advertising…I think that there’s a lot that we just take for granted, as opposed to realizing that someone’s paying for that. It’s not out of your pocket directly. But it’s being supported by ads.

Google, an IAB member, was just sued by the DOJ. Would they have made it into your speech?

To get into any specific members, that’s generally not what we do. The difference, which is stark, is that Google is about as leaned into the IAB and IAB Tech Lab, working groups, committees, councils, and other industry forums to try and work through what the future looks like together…We do not know at IAB how our member companies are run. We don’t understand how they make their decisions. We don’t understand what goes on behind closed doors. So obviously, we don’t know if any of the DOJ accusations are accurate or not. That is not ours to opine on.

What we can opine on is that bundling inherently is not a bad thing. There are lots and lots of companies—telecommunications, cable, ad-tech companies, technology companies—who bundle services for the ultimate benefit of consumers…Whether there were actions that were taken which were illegal, unlawful, underhanded—that we just we simply don’t know.

I just want to ask bluntly: Is it hypocritical to call out Apple but not Google?

It was the decision I made. I wouldn’t call it hypocritical. We could have probably included other companies in that mix. It so happens that Apple is not a member of IAB and not, as far as we know, engaged in industry conversations [about] the future of the ad-supported internet, so they were a good example in our opinion.

The IAB is supportive of a federal privacy law that looks a little bit different from the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA). But you said that if the ADPPA would have passed last year, it would have destroyed the industry. Was that because of a lack of preparation, or was it an existential threat? California has had its own consumer privacy law since 2018 and, as far as I know, people in California still see ads.

You didn’t get that memo, huh? I’m joking, obviously. The use of hyperbole and the use of exaggeration is at my discretion. I do believe however, just to be practical and pragmatic, we were not supportive of ADPPA as it made its way out of committee…The restrictions that were placed not only third-party data use, but first-party ad use, would have, in our opinion, just rewritten the rules of the way that advertising has worked for the past two-plus decades In the digital ecosystem…Data is the lifeblood and the oil that courses through the digital economy, so hampering that in such a severe way would have been draconian in our opinion and would have severely destroyed [and] eliminated advertising as we know it.

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