‘Weak Sauce’: New industry tool for opt-out from email-based tracking misses ID tech and key players like Facebook and Liveramp

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The email address has become an increasingly important piece of information used to identify people for advertising, particularly as the efficacy of cookies and other tracking tech declines.

Now, the Network Advertising Initiative has introduced a new way for people to opt-out from ad targeting and tracking that employs email matching. However, while the industry group’s new privacy control is intended to stop email-based audience matching — often referred to as onboarding — it does not work for email matching done by some of the biggest purveyors of those services: Facebook and LiveRamp. Meanwhile, there are other gaps and questions about how the opt-outs will apply when it comes to the countless email-based identifiers floating around programmatic ad systems.

Matching services that allow advertisers to onboard customer email lists to ad sellers’ systems to target ads to specific people have been around for years. Now, the NAI wants to expand the privacy options it gives people into that realm of audience matching beyond just blocking tracking cookies. The group now requires its member companies to provide an opt-out from services using hashed or encrypted emails as the links between a brand’s customer data and identity graphs and other audience matching systems.

Criteo is one of the NAI members enabling the opt-outs. “When Criteo receives an opt-out request, we will stop targeting the [hashed email address] for audience-matching and we will stop using the [hashed email address] for tailored advertising,” said Karsten Rieke, senior director, product management, identity and privacy at Criteo. “This means we will no longer serve personalized advertising to the identifiers we receive or are linked via this new email process in full compliance with the NAI guidelines,” he added.

People who want to opt-out of audience matching for ads must visit the NAI site and — yes — supply their email address. “If you don’t want information linked to your email address to be used for digital advertising, please enter your email address below, and our participating members will not use this data,” states the new tool on the NAI site. In most or all cases, a link to the tool will be available inside privacy policies or data collection choice areas on the websites of NAI’s members participating in the program. 

But, with links to the opt-outs buried inside privacy policies, the tool could have limited impact on consumer privacy in general. “How many consumers are going to find and understand this opt-out?” asked Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy and technology policy for Consumer Reports, calling the approach “weak sauce.”

Gaps and questions

In all, along with Criteo, six NAI member firms are enabling the email opt-out: Google, Neustar, Oracle Data Cloud, Inmar (formerly OwnerIQ) and Verizon Media. Notably, some of the biggest audience matching players are not included, because they are not NAI members: Facebook and LiveRamp.

Plus, there are questions about how Google will implement the opt-outs. It is not clear, for instance, whether opting out from Google’s audience matching via the NAI system will disable targeting inside Google-owned properties if people are logged in to Google, or if the opt-out would only apply for ads targeted through audience matching in the open web.

“Those details still have to be ironed out,” said Anthony Matyjaszewski, NAI’s vp of compliance, regarding Google’s opt-out implementation. Google did not provide a response to that question in time for publication.

There are other questions and gaps, too. The opt-out process misses many of the growing number of alternate identity technologies that use email addresses to build encrypted identifiers for use in programmatic ads in an effort to replace data sharing that currently happens using third-party cookies. This, despite the fact that most of the NAI’s members are ad tech firms, some of which offer ad targeting using identifiers built from hashed emails, or allow email-based IDs to pass through their ad systems.

Matyjaszewski said the NAI is working toward finding ways to provide opt-outs for those types of technologies. “It’s just a question of shifting dynamics in the ecosystem where these ad ID companies are sort of shifting their products on the fly in response to the market,” he said.

“Not everyone is happily marching along”

But even getting members to agree to the opt-out from audience matching was not necessarily a cake walk, said Matyjaszewski. “Not everyone is happily marching along,” he said.

Meanwhile, government pressure on advertisers when it comes to data collection and use is only intensifying, said Brookman. “Regulation is coming for these companies, and initiatives like this are just rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship,” he said.

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