Ad Tech Is Not Big Tech    

Audigent Founder and CEO Drew Stein takes a look at why big tech’s sudden privacy-first attitude is not in the interests of consumers - it’s about forcing advertisers and publishers to play ball

The internet is changing in 2024. Although the general public and lawmakers largely don’t understand how the ad-supported internet works, what isn’t discussed is how 'Big Tech' purposefully plays a role in that obfuscation. 

As government has yet to enact unified privacy legislation, state governments have enacted laws as stopgaps. To be clear, almost all ad tech companies champion privacy as a central, non-negotiable part of the free internet’s future. That said, it’s not 'ad tech' companies - but 'big tech' companies that drive the conversation around privacy and its implementation. Big tech literally dictates the privacy agenda via unilateral changes to its software and platforms that impact millions of consumers and billions of media dollars without any consideration other than profits. 

The result is that big tech is not only thriving, but literally building their walls higher by defining a privacy viewpoint that suits their own benefit. Even when their actions value revenue over consumer privacy and the free internet, big tech simply moves faster than the wheels of justice meant to safeguard consumers and protect industries from anti-competitive behaviour. The result?  We are heading to a place that actually hurts consumers, the internet experience, content publishers and – worst of all – jobs. 

Here's what's happening and what needs to happen to preserve a thriving free internet.

Long live the free internet

Nothing online is truly free – you either pay for content or watch ads in exchange for content. That said, there is widespread belief the content we consume is free on-demand, anytime, on any device. Yes, some consumers choose to pay subscriptions, but, overwhelmingly, people prefer to not pay monthly fees.

Advertising is what makes content free, and advertising technology (“ad tech”) is what makes digital advertising possible. Why? Because the internet is unfathomably large and advertisers who want to reach consumers need help and consumers do not want to be bombarded by disruptive, irrelevant or repetitive ads. To address this challenge, the programmatic advertising industry developed to efficiently connect advertisers with content publishers - all while putting more relevant ads in front of consumers.  Everyone wins. To make this work, the free internet relies on data to make these connections and ads effective. For the most part, this data is anonymous as most ad tech companies don’t need consumers’ personal information. Third-party cookies were the anonymised identifiers used for years to fuel this exchange. However, as certain actors began linking cookies to personal information, the lines blurred. Enter big tech to seemingly save the day.    

Big tech’s privacy narrative

With big tech in command, large technology companies have declared the exchange of anonymous data for free content as unsafe because identifiers may be tied back to personal information. They then claim their platforms should be exempt from that standard because they wall off the data. As a result, big tech unilaterally changes their policies and practices to give themselves an unfair, anti-competitive advantage in favour of ensuring brands solely use their tools and data. To be clear - this is a self-serving double-standard to drive their own profits and hurt competition.  

Because big tech owns everything from mobile devices to popular internet browsers, their policy changes ripple across the entire ecosystem. As big tech companies stop supporting the open buying and selling of advertising and instead push their own tools - it has altered the course of an entire industry. A good example is Apple. While being first to publicly champion consumer privacy, decry the evils of audience data by third parties and first to turn off targeted ads on their devices - they privately have been building their own advertising platform with ambitious goals to break USD$20bn (£15.7bn) by 2026 using their own data and rules and zero competition. See that playbook?  Cry foul → cut off the independent ad tech ecosystem in the name of privacy → build your own ad tech behemoth with your own data and rules to box out the competition → make billions of dollars while killing the competition.  Rinse repeat with other big tech companies. 

And while big tech is throwing its lobbying muscle behind these narratives in the name of privacy, the public needs to see through these efforts for what they really are: profit grabs that hurt industries and consumers. Big tech’s sudden infatuation with privacy is not in the interests of consumers at all - it’s about forcing advertisers and publishers to adopt their owned solutions and killing-off competitors in the process.

Decoupling Big Tech From Ad Tech

Simply put - ad tech is not big tech. Ad tech companies rely on an interdependent web of partnerships where success relies on ensuring brands, publishers, and consumers all participate in the value created through the exchange of free content, while big tech relies on its own platforms to drive revenue solely for its own profits. With ad tech - many companies have to win in order for the ad tech company to win.  With big tech - everyone else has to lose in order for them to win.  

The hypocrisy needs to be called out here. Big tech companies are filled with personal information which is used for targeted advertising, while ad tech companies mostly focus on anonymised, contextual and/or predictive signals. In short, big tech is the biggest profiteers of personal information and their focus on cutting off ad tech companies is at best disingenuous.

Whether you are a legislator or a consumer, the inability to differentiate between big tech and ad tech is a disservice to the advertising industry, content creators, and consumers which only helps big tech companies get bigger and pursue anti-competitive policies. This hurts small companies and endangers the free internet as a whole. It’s time we separate ad tech from big tech and stop letting big tech dictate the narrative around broader regulatory policies while benefiting from the double-standards. It’s not only consumer privacy that’s at stake - the free internet as we know it depends on making this distinction.

Drew Stein is CEO and founder at Audigent