Web standards organizations are calling for help as they (and online ad revenue) are overwhelmed by change

Asbestos has been an essential, even miraculous, part of world construction for a century. It keeps buildings cool when it’s hot and preserves heat when it’s cold; it holds buildings together and prevents them from burning.

One problem: Asbestos does horrific violence to human lungs.

The example of asbestos is relevant to advertising technology, as it is also an industry based on miraculous and readily available tools that, in retrospect, turn out to be toxic to human beings as well.

Ad tech may not cause cancer (which we still know), but the industry now needs to retrofit all those skyscrapers built with metaphorical asbestos. Everything built from here will be bound by new rules regarding the hazards of our building materials.

Three standards organizations tasked with this industry overhaul, the W3C, the IAB Tech Lab and Prebid.org, called for help this week in a series of presentations and a joint panel at the AdMonsters Ops conference in New York.

“I think the open web is under serious threat,” IAB Tech Lab CEO Tony Katsur said at the event. “There must be a middle ground between privacy and an open, addressable and sustainable web.”


Forcing change (without forcing)

Standards organizations are caught in a difficult bind. Everyone understands the importance of hard work. But everyone is also used to the work happening in the background, without too much collective industry effort.

And these organizations do not have the power to compel action or enforce the norms they create.

“There’s no standards police that slap you on the wrist or lock you up if you don’t meet a web standard,” said Wendy Seltzer, chief strategy officer and attorney at W3C. “So we have to find ways for people to understand that we have to go together rather than go it alone.”

It was easy for the W3C to standardize site loading and functionality because all major browsers want sites to load uniformly. (Seriously, early web users might recall that Internet Explorer once required its own site setup and design that loaded completely, unlike other browsers.)

Finding consensus on issues of privacy technology and web monetization is trickier, if not outright impossible.

“We are an industry built on misaligned incentives,” Katsur said. Everyone can agree that they want a “thriving open web”, he said, but no one can reconcile all the stakeholders – advertisers, publishers, tech companies and internet users – pulling in opposite directions.

External laws, as opposed to self-regulation, provide external motivation.

“I think the actions taken by governments and regulators have caught the industry’s attention,” Katsur said.

And after?

One of the great challenges faced by standards organizations is the extreme pace of change by industry, which is not matched by the laborious pace of most standards organization working groups.

Katsur said the IAB Tech Lab has begun “timeboxing” its workgroup projects. Previously, comment periods and reviews could drag on for weeks or months. At the deadline, often a stakeholder complained and asked for an extension, which was granted.

This gives new meaning to the term “ad nauseam”.

Not anymore, however, Katsur said. “If you just missed the comment period, so be it. The train left the station.

“We have to go faster,” he said. “We’re out of time.”

Seltzer said the W3C has seen the same trend with a move to “standard of living.” The organization can no longer “work on something in a cave for 10 years” to emerge with a standard and expect universal adoption.

For example, Mozilla engineer Martin Thomson is co-leading the development at W3C of a potential standard called Interoperable Private Attribution (IPA), a privacy-based method for measuring cross-device ad conversions, with Meta.

Ad tech and website or app publishers want a solution to this problem fast – they needed it yesterday, to be honest, but would settle for something by the end of the year. It’s a bad joke, though. If IPA is ready to ship and sees browser adoption within three years, it will be a rush job.

Thomson was a key contributor to updating the HTTP2 protocol, another W3C standard. It was a much needed update and widely supported by all browsers. Even then, it still took more than five years to become an official standard.

Another problem is that not all the key players in digital media are invested in the ongoing overhaul of web standards.

“We need publishers involved,” said Mike Racic, president of Prebid.org, the group that oversees Prebid’s open-source ad tech products.

Tech companies are bringing a focused but tunneling perspective to standards, he said. “Publishers bring a broader perspective and daily engagement with consumers that should be part of the discussions,” he said.

Publishers did not need to be notified of events at the IAB Tech Lab or W3C. The tools and rules that have come out of industry organizations have all worked quite well. Now the tools don’t work well enough and publishers need to be involved at the technical standards level, Racic said.

If publishers don’t fight back, he said, the rules that govern and determine their revenues will be “written by lawmakers and policymakers who barely understand even the most basic advertising.”

Publishers and other stakeholders won’t always agree and won’t always be happy, Seltzer said. In fact, they almost never will. But the goal is to end Somethingnot necessarily a solution that everyone is happy about.

“People don’t always agree, even after months of painful and heartfelt discussions,” Seltzer said. “We always ask the question, ‘Can you live with this?'”