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IAB Tech Lab is a reluctant peacekeeper during the privacy wars

This story is part of Digiday’s Masters of Uncertainty series, a look at people and companies at the center of media’s defining storylines. Find the rest here.As 2022 gets underway, the IAB Tech Lab is steering the digital advertising industry through some choppy waters. The non-profit consortium, first founded in 2014, differs from its geography-based licensees of…

This story is part of Digiday’s Masters of Uncertainty Series, which looks at companies and people at the center of the media’s most important storylines. Find the rest here .

As 2022 gets underway, the IAB Tech Lab is steering the digital advertising industry through some choppy waters.

The non-profit consortium, first founded in 2014, differs from its geography-based licensees of the IAB brand, not just because of its global remit but because of its mandate to establish consensus and usher in tech standards that can aid the rise of digital advertising.

Today’s two greatest challenges — devising a technical solution for the decline in third-party cookies and gauging consent from consumers for behavioral tracking — are more difficult than any other. Ad tech is a complex ecosystem with many competing interests. But Google’s decision to withdraw support for third-party cookies in its Chrome browser in 2023 placed many ad tech companies’ business models in jeopardy, making IAB Tech Lab’s path to achieving consensus on either front a political minefield.

The dominance of Big Tech

The trade org is described as the “bigtent ” place where all tiers in the online advertising ecosystem meet to set engagement rules. It expanded its membership further in December, which allowed agencies to join its board.

Its working model has produced some achievements, including the establishment and maintenance of the real-time bidding protocols, as well as standards for determining whether the ads served were actually seen by consumers.

But, the IAB’s membership system also grants Big Tech players like Google and Facebook a seat at the table (some would argue a large one) when it is time to formulate such standards. In recent years, smaller players have begun to question the value of their membership dues.

Take, for example, the long-running case of the Transparency Consent Framework implementation — the industry’s solution in complying with General Data Protection Regulations (EU) — which was driven primarily by IAB Tech Lab and IAB Europe.

Google, easily the biggest player in the digital advertising ecosystem, stalled in signing up to TCF long after GDPR came into law in 2018. The implementation of TCF2.0 took Google two years. It was only after GDPR became law that the online advertising giant had to finally implement the new framework.

TCF 2.0 in question

Today, many publishers are still convinced that TCF 2.0 favors ad tech, Google included, as they are tasked with gaining consumers’ consent for tracking their behaviors online, before handing it over to intermediaries. This concern seems justified given the recent scrutiny of the consent standard by EU legal authorities.

In November 2021, the IAB Europe issued a warning to members that the Belgian Data Protection Authority was in the process of consulting sister EU agencies on a ruling that interprets the current TCF framework as infringing GDPR. The ruling, if ratified by the IAB Europe, would declare the IAB Europe to be in violation of the GDPR. Although the trade body denied this assertion, it would be necessary for the IAB to create a third iteration or standard of consent if the ruling were ratified.

The high stakes surrounding TCF’s legal wranglings mean that few people are willing to discuss its GDPR compliance. Digiday IAB Tech Lab, according to one source familiar with the wranglings, is in complete agreement with its European sister organization. The source said that he supports due process and it’s a good thing [for legal authorities to examine TCF 2.0],”. “But it’s the ultimate catch-22 … the industry took a big step forward to provide a framework to support privacy and consent across Europe but now they’re saying it’s in violation.”

Sources expect an eventual ruling from EU DPAs in early 2022 with all IAB entities keen to underline their commitment to comply with GDPR rulings.

TCF was not the only tech standard that the IAB Tech Lab has come under scrutiny for in terms of GDPR. In June 2021, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties named IAB Tech Lab, along with household tech names including Google, as co-defendants in a case in Germany, alleging that its RTB protocol is also in contravention of GDPR. The ICCL’s case is an ongoing concern, but with recent studies presented to Digiday suggesting that ad tech companies are placing trackers on internet users’ machines prior to gaining their consent, the jeopardy the industry faces is clear.

The long goodbye

However, the IAB Tech Lab’s efforts to find a new ad targeting tool and a third-party cookie have been slowing down.

Just this week, IAB Tech Lab CEO Anthony Katsur laid out what he described as a “three-bucket framework” the IAB Tech Lab is using as it attempts to address the conundrum.

The first aims to reconcile unlinked first-party audiences using private marketplaces and contextual ad placement methods. Second, it addresses ad targeting techniques cultivated by a browser or OS provider with its SKADNetwork list, or through channeling members’ feedback into initiatives such as Google’s Privacy Sandbox. The trade org is also working on a standardized interface to help advertisers and publishers harmonize the industry’s various ID solutions in order to connect audiences.

United front?

As the countdown to 2023 continues, IAB Tech Lab is now charged with championing the interests of independent ad tech players at a time when Unified ID 2.0 has emerged as the most high-profil

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