In an extraordinary keynote at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s annual leadership meeting event in Florida last week, CEO David Cohen branded privacy activists, academics, politicians of both left and right, and even Apple as “extremists” for criticizing the ad industry and supporting tighter privacy legislation.
“Extremists are winning the battle for hearts and minds in Washington DC and beyond,” said Cohen. “We cannot let that happen. These extremists are political opportunists who’ve made it their mission to cripple the advertising industry and eliminate it from the American economy and culture.”
The online advertising industry is seriously concerned about the momentum of privacy legislation in the US, where five states are introducing GDPR-style rules that require consumers to opt-in, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has vowed to crack down on tracking.
Cohen used the word “extremist” ten times in his speech, which has been released online. He also branded the argument that online tracking is used to shape behavior and society put forward by Shoshana Zuboff, author of the influential book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, as “dystopian nonsense” and “insane.”
He took aim at anti-surveillance statements made by FTC chair Lina Khan, and, seemingly trying to separate advertising from “big tech” (even though Google, Meta and Amazon are IAB members), accused the regulator of endangering “the free and open internet” in its zeal to “punish the big players”. Last summer the FTC promised to crack down on “commercial surveillance and lax data security practices.” One advertising company told the drums 2023 is a “point of inflection”.
Turning to US politicians, Cohen said the likes of Amy Klobuchar (Democrat) and Ted Cruz (Republican) will “throw our industry under their campaign buses.” Both have called for more regulation of social media, although for different reasons.
He also laid into Asad Ramzanali, chief of staff White House office of science and technology policy, and Democratic congresswoman Anna Eshoo for characterizing online ads as “a means for misinformation and inciteful speech to proliferate and hurt people.” And he hit out at Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers for claiming the industry is “part of big tech’s control over speech that limits consumer choice and drives addiction.”
He attacked pressure group Accountable Tech, as “one of the more virulent anti-advertising groups trying to shut down the ad-supported internet”, accusing it of being funded by “progressive dark money,” and saying the IAB’s own lobbyists were hard at work in Washington pushing for “serious, common-sense legislation”.
Fear of a US GDPR
The US has been far more lax than Europe in terms of data protection, but the states of Colorado, Connecticut, Utah and Virginia are following California’s lead and introducing their own GDPR-style privacy laws this year, and the advertising industry does not like it one bit. As a worst case, it fears a federal privacy ruling similar to a US-wide GDPR, which has been mooted.
Last year, IAB Europe was handed a €250,000 fine by the Belgian DPA, which told the trade body that “legitimate interest” was not a lawful basis for placing cookies on a device under its Transparency & Consent Framework (TCF). Its replacement was provisionally approved earlier this month, but IAB Europe faces further rulings by the European Court of Justice over whether it is a data controller and whether its preferred consent mechanism is personal information under GDPR.
Unsurprisingly, Cohen is not a fan of the GDPR, saying it punishes small and medium players.
In his speech, he positioned the advertising industry as a noble, liberating force that “enables the World Wildlife Fund to sell environmental protection and enables the United Negro College Fund to attract contributions that support HBCUs.” He claimed publishers, platforms, brands, ad agencies, private equity and venture capital, martech and ad tech were innocent parties caught in the crossfire between regulators and big tech, and attacked by “extremists” on all sides.
However, Cohen reserved his biggest guns for Apple, which he views as a sort of fifth column, charging the company with exemplifying “the cynicism and hypocrisy that underpins the prevailing extremist view.”
Apple, not an IAB member, has long sought to set itself apart from other tech giants as being uniquely respecting privacy. How much of this marketing message is actually true is questionable: Apple is facing a number of court cases for failing to live up to its privacy claims, and researchers have found that Apple collects analytics data even when privacy controls are set to prevent it.
Hyperbole aside, Cohen is perhaps on firmer ground here. Many industry observers have seen the move as less of an ethical statement and more as a way of shutting out its rivals. He accused the Cupertino company of trying “to smother the advertising industry, just like they did to the recorded music industry.”
He continued: “Apple’s aims to let them expand their advertising business while rewriting the rule book so the rest of the industry can’t compete.”
With “radicals on the left and right, abetted by giants like Apple and others with a vested interest in controlling the market,” the industry faces severe challenges, Cohen said.
“We have to take on the extremists if we want to survive.”