Industry Silence on Mobile Data Targeting Practices Deafening/NTIA Fails to Ensure Consumers are Treated Fairly

Yesterday's NTIA stakeholder meeting failed to address the actual mobile marketing data collection practices consumers confront in both the "app" and overall mobile/geo-location market.  Neither the industry nor the Department of Commerce appears interested in ensuring that the public actually knows about the issues and practices that should be addressed in any "code of conduct" to protect consumers using mobile devices and related applications.  Consumer groups have repeatedly asked that NTIA commission a paper that lays out the issues so we (industry, consumer groups, other stakeholders and the public at large)) can all start on the same page.   What is going on now; what does it mean; and what safeguards are required.  A simple question really that the Department of Commerce and its leaders like Chief Counsel Cam Kerry and NTIA head Larry Strickling shouldn't try to duck.  The online marketing and mobile industry is afraid to have such a paper because they fear that as word gets out about the widespread collection of information from mobile users, and the means used to often surreptiously collect that data, it will raise public concern.   They industry also knows you can't isolate mobile apps from the overall mobile and online data collection system.  That's why we need to create a orderly assessment of mobile data practices and begin to deliberate what safeguards are require for consumers.  For example, rules that ensure you're in control of your financial and health information; that your location history and that of your friends isn't tracked, stored or sold.  Or that certain mobile marketing practices aren't unfair or deceptive--such as ads disguised as apps.

Consumer privacy is especially at risk in the mobile landscape, which includes finely grained geo-location tracking and targeting.   By trying to focus the first negotiations on "transparency," the NTIA is seeking to secure an agreement based on a lack of public disclosure about what really goes on that impacts a consumer.  If the NTIA cannot ensure that the issues are laid squarely and fairly on the table, it will have no legitimacy to move the process forward--threatening to undermine the Obama Administration's Privacy Bill of Rights initiative.   One had to be knowledgeable about industry practices and read between the "lines" yesterday when a number of industry representatives basically said that the issue of mobile apps was, in fact, linked to the larger online data collection system.  That the distinctions between using an app on the mobile and other platforms was blurred, and that there is a chain of business relationships and responsibilities linking together advertisers, app developers, and mobile platforms (Apple, Google).  The conceit of the NTIA that one can separate out the "apps" area from the mobile and larger online data targeting system is a facetious one, because it's all interconnected.   Our friends from the EU will likely assess the NTIA process--unless it gets serious ensuring there is a level playing field of information and a reasonable process to decide the scope of issues--as amateur at best.  

 The silence by Google and Apple yesterday is remarkable, given their own powerful role shaping the mobile environment, inc apps.  Perhaps their strategy to "lie low" at the moment is the best political course for them--but isn't the correct one. They (and Facebook) not only know what's going, but are shaping the system.  A Google mobile ad partner--ad agency Mindshare--just published a report discussing both Facebook's and Google's mobile expansion.  Dated June 8, 2012, Mindshare explained [my bold] that "This has been a big week in the world of mobile advertising as both Facebook and Google announced seamless integration of mobile ad buying across their various ad buying platforms,  Purchasing of mobile placements for either platform should now be easy and automated as display and search...Google is finally connecting 1 million AdWords advertisers with its Admob network of 350 million mobile devices....Advertisers are able to buy ads across AdMob's 300K apps separately or bundled through desktop campaigns....Demand is expected to drastically increase as AdMob reported 1 billion ad requests in May alone....Facebook launched mobile ad opportunities for the first time in March 2012...Now sponsored story placements can be purchased for mobile via the Facebook power Editor tool and via third party...sellers."

Just this Wednesday, Google discussed how mobile marketing was a powerful tool operating across platforms, etc.  In an interview on its blog for ad agencies, a company that partners with them explained:

Where is mobile not going? Mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) have already become so ingrained in our everyday lives that the full impact is literally boundless. Mobile is the channel that connects all others. It doesn’t fit in the traditional conversion funnel -- it runs alongside it, involved at every stage. This presents a challenge to brands who still segment advertising channels with separate budgets and directives instead of focusing on how they impact each other. Mobile will highlight the need to evaluate all channels together to create a truly integrated approach - one that enhances the consumer’s interaction with the brand.

Google also has this handy video which shows how advertising app system can be launched from mobile ads--or that the app itself is a mobile ad.  It's "Mobile App Extensions" page explains that:  "When smartphone users are searching on, they can see your ad promoting your app, and directly click to download it from the Google Play or iTunes App Store. What’s more, with the launch of the new Mobile App Extension, you can even choose to deep link to a specific page inside your app, right from your ad. People who already own your app can be brought to a specific section inside your mobile app, and easily complete a conversion inside your app."

The NTIA owes the public due dligence.  What is going on now that affects how consumers are treated in the mobile system?  How do apps connect with the larger mobile business practices?   Industry should be proactive in providing to the public an honest explanation of what's done and by whom.  The public deserves to know what's going on and have reasonable means to control what happens to them in the mobile/location marketing era.  We believe reasonable agreements can be brokered to ensure both consumer protection and mobile commerce.  But it has to be based on the facts--and actually protect consumers. 

PS:  Even though the IAB and Digital Ad Alliance lobbyists were in the room yesterday, you would have never know they released a proposal that expands mobile marketing and targeting practices just the day before!.  The IAB's new proposed "Mobile-Rich Media Ad Interface" proposal wil enable mobile marketers to have "sophisticated size changes in ads, allowing ads to grow to partial screen, and change size multiple times as users interact with the creative...[and better control] how the ad creative gets information about screen size, device capabilities, and other details relevant to desired ad behavior."  

This is another example of the NTIA not just fumbling the ball--but not even noticing it in the first place!

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