The Case for Internet Tracking

We constantly hear about attacks on personal privacy in the digital realm. Data breaches, predatory internet tracking by companies and advertisers, and generally dubious practices in the area of information security leave users feeling exposed. We feel like whenever a policy is instated which gives people more control over their personal data, it’s a win for us as consumers and as empowered private citizens.

Apple’s Internet tracking changes

With the latest iOS14 App Tracking Transparency policy, Apple has aimed to do just that. The widely publicized initiative is a way for Apple to position itself in consumers’ minds as a protector and savior, giving power back to the people. The changes will force all iOS applications, such as Facebook and Instagram, to present users with a prompt upon opening their app: “Instagram would like permission to track you across apps and websites owned by other companies.” As a user, you must select either “Allow Tracking” or “Ask App Not to Track.”

This is a scary and discouraging question. Track me across apps and websites? Owned by other companies? How vague! What will they know? Who will they share my info with? The consensus is that the majority of people will say “No” and ask the app not to track. 

Apps like Facebook and Instagram have been tracking users in this manner since day one, and as users, we accept a level of tacit understanding that our data is being monetized in ways we can’t imagine. But we love having access to our social networks and mobile apps and feel like there isn’t much we can do about it other than to become a digital recluse and abandon our online presence altogether. But all of the sudden, with Apple’s new policy, the power is suddenly placed in our hands. “Ask App Not to Track.” Wow! I didn’t realize this would ever be an option! The tracking they have been doing this whole time will now, with the tap of a finger, be severely limited and my privacy will be intact. Seems like a no-brainer.

But what does this really mean? Can we imagine a world where no apps track or remember us? Where our personal information and preferences is just that – personal? What would be different in this world?

Personalization diminishes

When I scroll through social apps, I see content from the pages and friends that I follow, and this won’t change. But mixed in with that content are ads for different products and content that might interest me. As a 31-year-old male, I have become accustomed to not seeing ads for things like adult diapers or birth control pills. 

I’m able to discover new brands and products that fit my lifestyle and are now things that I would hate to live without (those Allbirds are just so comfy). I now have a grocery app that delivers items with no minimum and no delivery fee within 15 minutes to my door (perks of living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn) which I discovered from an Instagram ad. 

These exciting new startups, services, and publications that are finely attuned to my particular tastes and preferences are able to find me due to the advanced network of intent signals that pass from apps and websites across the internet. In other words, they are a product of internet tracking. This makes my experience online feel relevant to me, a departure from the old days of TV, radio, and print ads where everyone in America had to sit through the same commercials.

Small businesses struggle

Companies like the examples above would not be able to survive without being able to get in front of the customers that matter to them. Digital advertising is a cutthroat environment as it is, where every optimization and data point available is crucial to success. 

Instead of spending $100 dollars in advertising spend to reach 20 relevant paying customers, they may now have to spend $400 for the same results since they are flying blind in terms of who they are able to reach. For small businesses and startups, every dollar counts, and the blow to internet tracking could be a matter of life and death.

Consumers pay

Mega brands will gobble up and consolidate these small businesses. Why? Because they are able to afford expensive workarounds such as advanced digital shopping tools and third-party audience data.

Free apps that you now use and love that are supported by personalized in-app advertising will now have to start charging a fee, or they will go out of business altogether. Consumers will still end up paying a price to no longer be exposed to personalized advertising – and that price will be in lack of choice or in dollars and cents.

Matt Woodruff is Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer at Constellation Agency.

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