“Unfortunately, some of the popular business models in the ad industry remind me of John Doerr’s quip about his investment philosophy: ‘No conflict, no interest,’” said Metamarkets CEO Mike Driscoll. “I don’t know if there is a broader lesson here about what kind of business model will be successful in ad tech, but one thing is clear: By charging everybody, you can end up serving no one.”
As Transparent As a Ghost?
Its enterprise privacy compliance business aside, Ghostery packages and sells user data collected through its consumer app and browser extension to advertisers and other companies.
“I don’t think most Ghostery users really understand how that works,” Chapell said.
But for its part, Ghostery is fairly transparent about its data collection practices. When users download the Chrome extension, one of the first things Ghostery asks is for permission to anonymously share their data.
“As you visit a site, Ghostery reveals the trackers on that site and we collect that data,” Ghostery informs its users on a welcome screen after download. “Ghostery sells that data about the trackers to companies who run the sites, enabling them to make their sites more secure and load faster.”
Consumers, however, can also use the Ghostery extension to pause third-party tracking and block scripts, effectively blocking ads on the page.
There was that ever-so-brief moment in time last September during the height of the iOS 9 content-blocking frenzy when Ghostery collaborated with Tumblr co-founder Marco Arment to power an actual ad blocker called Peace.
Despite Peace almost immediately becoming the top paid iOS app in the US, Arment ended up removing it from the App Store after just two days.
At the time, Meyer called what happened with Peace “an eye-opening experiment,” noting in a blog post that “both we and Marco feel that the way Peace was being used compromised the neutrality Ghostery is built on.”
It’s hard to imagine in what other way a content blocker would ever be used other than to block content, but Meyer told AdExchanger that it was originally presented to Ghostery as an opportunity to collaborate on a consumer choice tool.
What it boils down to is whether you can get behind Ghostery’s stated mission of helping the industry clean up its act while giving users the tools to whitelist the sites that get it right and to block tags – for advertising, analytics, beacons, widgets – on the ones that don’t.
Regardless, Chapell called the Ghostery model an “opportunistic” cash grab that plays both ends against the middle.
Ghostery does indeed have a delicate dance to dance. But that’s the path it’s chosen for itself. So have others. The online ad industry is full of pivots and stuff that happens in the back end –DSPs becoming SSPs, publisher tools branching out to the buy side, frenemy partnerships, data deals.
“It’s challenging to be a consumer-focused tool but also be serving the broader industry and balancing it with business interests at the same time,” said Jason Kint, CEO of publisher trade org Digital Content Next. “But this isn’t unique to Ghostery. A lot of companies wear multiple different hats.”
The more lucrative hat is certainly the one that Ghostery dons for its ongoing relationship with the DAA.
There have been criticisms of the AdChoices program in the past, namely that most people don’t know why that little blue icon is there or, even if they do, whether it’s doing anything more than keeping the regulators at bay.
DAA Executive Director Lou Mastria predictably defends AdChoices as offering “a pragmatic approach that gives consumers real choice over the types of advertising they receive while protecting the underlying financial framework for ad-supported content and services.”
Not everyone sees it that way. Before taking the reins as CTO of the Federal Communications Commission, Jonathan Mayer, then a researcher at Stanford, called the AdChoices program a bit of “privacy theater.”
None of this is to say that Ghostery’s tools don’t work in the sense that they do exactly what they’re intended to do, said Chapell.
“Historically, Ghostery has made good tools – their stuff works – and you can always suggest that someone work with them on the compliance side with a high level of confidence,” he said. “That aside, the ultimate question is, how deep in bed should the industry associations get here knowing what we know about the potential for and the reality of conflict here?”
Ghostery is nothing if not adaptable, though. As the FCC ramps up its privacy push around Internet service providers, Ghostery is starting to angle for the creation of what sounds a heck of a lot like AdChoices for ISPs.
“We have millions of people who use Ghostery to manage their preferences inside of their browser, making decisions on the site they are on, the type of technology and other options,” Meyer wrote on the Ghostery blog in April. “We’re in discussions with leading ISPs and mobile carriers to bring this solution to the network level.”
But hey, Ghostery is a private business and that’s what businesses do – they try to suss out new monetization strategies. If there’s a willing market for whatever a company offers, it’s hard to fault it for chasing the revenue stream. Perhaps it’s just about positioning.
“I acknowledge that Ghostery is a business, but I’m not sure how many users know they are essentially the leading compliance vendor for the digital advertising industry,” Chapell said. “You wouldn’t know that [by] the way the Ghostery app has been marketed over the last few years.”
[Full disclosure: I use the Ghostery Chrome browser extension to see which trackers are tracking me, which I love knowing, but I don’t use it to block content.]