Will Google's latest privacy misstep compromise the ad industry's self-regulation efforts? The discovery that Google and a handful of other companies were circumventing the privacy settings on Apple's Safari browser and had to recant has already brought back the privacy debate in Washington with a vengeance.
Following the reports, more lawmakers raised questions and many called for the Federal Trade Commission to intervene.
But the controversy also could have repercussions for the integrity of the ad industry that has been working hard to convince Washington that it could self-regulate privacy policies. Just last week, days before the Google-Safari contretemps, the Network Advertising Association, of which Google is the largest ad network member, issued its annual audit confirming its members were in compliance with the organization's privacy code and guidelines.
The whole incident with Google leaves the Network Advertising Initiative, a member of the Digital Advertising Alliance that is rolling out a self-regulatory program across the industry, in an awkward spot.
In a statement emailed to Adweek, Marc Groman, the executive director of NAI, reiterated the organization's commitment to enforcing its privacy guidelines.
"The NAI has an established process to review alleged violations of the NAI code and NAI policies," said Groman. "In accordance with these procedures, NAI compliance staff is reviewing the allegations contained in last week's articles with respect to all NAI members identified in the articles."
What's so disappointing to the ad industry is that Google may have torpedoed some of the goodwill it has built up at the Federal Trade Commission, which at the end of the year had encouraging words for the industry's self-regulation program.
The ad industry is serving up about 900 billion in-ad privacy icons per month, per the Digital Advertising Alliance, progress that is getting overshadowed by self-inflicted wounds that scare consumers and incite regulators and lawmakers.
"As an industry, we're taking steps forward and taking steps backward at the same time, and that's not doing anybody any good," said Chris Babel, CEO of Truste, a privacy management firm. "The FTC will push harder for faster progress. Issues are building, not diminishing."
Demonstrating that the ad industry can regulate itself will be key.
"This puts added pressure on us to make sure we have an enforceable program," said Mike Zaneis, svp and general counsel of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.