GroupM Takes Lead on Mobile Privacy Guidelines

Voluntary system would mask phone IDs, allow users to opt out

When Apple and Google were called to Capitol Hill to testify about how, and why, iPhone and Android smartphones were tracking their owners, the digital privacy debate—which had mostly been concentrated on Web issues—got a little wider. That made an impression on executives at GroupM, who decided that now is the time to set some guidelines for privacy in the growing mobile ad industry. 

On Wednesday, GroupM became the first agency to adopt mobile privacy guidelines. Those guidelines would limit the amount of data collected and shared from mobile devices in marketing campaigns by calling for publishers to mask UUIDs (universal unique identifiers, which are on every phone) and giving users the opportunity to opt out of data collection and sharing.

The guidelines are voluntary, but publishers and mobile ad networks that work with GroupM will be urged to adopt them.

"For mobile privacy, the cat's out of the bag," said Michael Collins, CEO of Joule, GroupM's mobile marketing division. Collins crafted the new guidelines with John Montgomery, who's the COO of GroupM and chair of a new privacy committee at the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

As an industry, mobile marketing is still new and evolving, but it's growing by leaps and bounds. Mobile ad spending will top $1.1 billion this year, a 48 percent jump compared to last year, according to eMarketer. By 2014, that total is expected to more than double, reaching $2.5 billion. No one in the business wants to stunt that growth.

"There is a high awareness among the players that privacy is an issue, and most players are in different stages of addressing it," said Collins. "If privacy isn't handled properly, that will significantly impact the growth of this space."

Both the Mobile Marketing Association and the 4A's are currently working on privacy guidelines.

Collins is hoping both the industry and GroupM's clients will work with them to properly protect consumer privacy. "We can't tell the industry what to do, but we do have a responsibility to our clients," Collins said. "We can make recommendations to our clients where they should place their advertising and if we don't think publishers protect consumer privacy, less of our clients' money would be directed there."

These guidelines also fit in with a broader pattern—the industry is trying to regulate itself when it comes to privacy issues, in the hope that such efforts will keep the government from beginning regulation efforts of its own.