The digital ad business can’t police itself — it’s time to let the feds do it

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Bring on the heavy regulation.

AP/Tony Avelar

  • The digital advertising business is getting squeezed from every direction. But is heavy regulation such a bad thing?
  • Mike Shields, the former advertising editor for Business Insider who is now CEO of Shields Strategic Consulting, argues that we've been waiting for an ad tech shakeout for a decade, and nothing is happening. We've had self-regulation, verification, fraud prevention, and supply chain optimization.
  • And yet the user experience on the internet is still horrible. We need the feds to step in.
  • Click here for more BI Prime stories.

If you talk to people in digital advertising these days, there is endless consternation and panic.

The cookie is dying. People are opting out of sharing data. We just got through GDPR and now the California Consumer Privacy Act is going to set the industry back to the 1990s.

The business is getting squeezed from every direction. Whatever we do, we can't win — both Trump and Warren hate us!

I say — good. 

Bring on the heavy regulation. Let's go Microsoft and Google and Apple and all the other big tech monopolies/bullies! I'm rooting for you. Let's kill the cookie dead — bury it at the bottom of a data lake. 

Let's all opt out of every form of tracking possible. Someone should start a National Facebook Clear History Day.

Regarding Facebook, you may have read that Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mark Zuckerberg don't see eye to eye on things (gee, who to root for there?). Personally, I'm torn on whether breaking up Facebook and Google will accomplish much. 

Instead of President Warren taking on Zuck, I'd rather have her order a drone strike on the Lumascape.

Will this be really bad for a lot of ad tech companies? Yes. Do I want companies and jobs to go away? Yes, at least the bad ones. 

Because we've been waiting for this ad tech shakeout for a decade, and nothing is happening. We've had self-regulation, verification, fraud prevention, supply chain optimization. 

Yet here we are. The open web is still a cesspool. Time to burn it all down.

And we can't expect the industry to ever change on its own. We need the feds.

Why am I so convinced this is needed? Just take a spin around the open web without an ad blocker. See if you enjoy the experience. 

Try and just look up tomorrow's temperature on any big weather site and see how long it takes you — or if you can even type your desired city into a search box without accidentally clicking on an ad. Check out any number of local newspaper sites, from LATimes.com to the notorious NY Daily News, home of the video player that will chase you wherever you go, and see if you can click on the article you want in less than 10 seconds.

Or head over to Sports Illustrated's site SI.com just to get a score, and the one thing you'll be doing is waiting. Waiting for Taboola and Facebook and Google and Bluekai and ten other interlopers to load before the content on the page does.

It's just as bad, if not worse, on mobile devices. And the thing is, it's been this bad for years, despite a million investigative exposes on the ad tech daisy chaining middlemen morass that is digital advertising — and how it's about to change.

Sure, you can argue that maybe it's my computer, or my browser, or that publishers' ad ops team, or a particularly bad ad network or cookie or plug in or whatever. The one thing I'll guarantee you is that if you try to get to the bottom of why the user experience is so bad on so many ad supported sites, you'll get everyone pointing their fingers at everyone else.

Of course, earlier this week, some of the biggest players in digital advertising, lead by MediaMath (and including Business Insider) announced an initiative called Source aimed at cleaning up the supply chain by leaning into transparency. I wish them well, I really do.

It's just hard to believe that's going to get us anywhere, considering that we already have:

Like I said, I hope Source works. But I'm skeptical.

I remember sitting in a meeting roughly a decade ago when IAB president Randy Rothenberg was exhorting the digital ad ecosystem to get out in front of regulation now, before President Obama and the regulation-inclined Democrats took over DC. He warned that the industry needed self-regulation, or the feds would do the job for us, in a much harsher and haphazard way.

I was with Randy then. Turns out the Democrats had other things on their mind in 2009. But times have changed. It seems to me that self regulation didn't work. 

Now I'm cheering hard for lawmakers. Let's go uniformed government bureaucrats. MTWTFTFT! (Make The Web Tolerable For The First Time).

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