IAB Tech Lab proposes a new tracking alternative to the cookie

The Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Tech Lab is calling for a new approach to online tracking, one that would replace the long-lived cookie.

In a lengthy post, the IAB Tech Lab’s Jordan Mitchell runs through the history of tracking, describing the cookie as “a boon to the internet” that allowed websites to tailor their ads and content to each visitor, while acknowledging that this approach has some shortfalls:

Proprietary HTTP cookies were (and remain) the core mechanism for distinguishing one consumer from another, and each cookie may only be read by the party that sets it. There is no standardized, centralized mechanism for consumers to convey their interests or privacy preferences, which can then travel with them and be reliably broadcast to the right parties as consumers surf the web or hop from app to app on their mobile devices.

He suggested that this “fragmented and privatized” approach to privacy has led to “the data and privacy crises that we see today.”

Those crises are probably why the Tech Lab — a partner organization to the IAB, itself is a trade group of advertisers and media companies — is taking action on this now, as government scrutiny of online privacy practices is on the rise, while companies like Apple, Google and Mozilla are all strengthening their browser privacy controls in ways that will make cookies less effective.

In response, the Tech Lab is calling for new “standardized privacy settings and consumer controls tied to a neutral, standardized identifier.”

In other words, instead of one-off cookies, consumers would be tracked by a single identifier across the web. In order to get access to that identifier, Mitchell said companies would have to “consistently demonstrate compliance to the privacy preferences attached.” And Mitchell said the Tech Lab is also proposing that “these standards be set up as public utilities, subject to regulations promulgated by government entities, with the digital media and marketing industries jointly governing the standards with the browser providers.”

You might be leery of an ad industry trade group creating a new identifier that can track users so broadly, and you wouldn’t be the only one: In response to the proposal, Brendan Eich, CEO of ad-blocking browser company Brave, tweeted, “Who’re they kidding? A single ‘token’ will uniquely identify you & be linked to your name & personal data in a trice among sites sharing info w/ their 3rd parties.”

Mitchell acknowledged the likelihood of skepticism in an interview with CNET, where he said, “Who’s going to trust the [ad] industry [to] come save the day? No one. We recognize we need to show accountability and reliability to the preferences set by consumers.”

Updated to clarify the distinction between the IAB and the IAB Tech Lab.