If the ad industry is serious about transparency, let’s open-source our SDKs

Year after year, a lack of transparency in how ad traffic is sourced, sold and measured is cited by advertisers as a source of frustration and a barrier to entry in working with various providers. But despite progress on the protection and privacy of data through laws like GDPR and COPPA, the overall picture regarding ad-marketing transparency has changed very little.

In part, this is due to the staggering complexity of how programmatic and other advertising technologies work. With automated processes managing billions of impressions every day, there is no universal solution to making things more simple and clear. So the struggle for the industry is not necessarily a lack of intent around transparency, but rather how to deliver it.

Frustratingly, evidence shows that the way data is collected and used by some industry players has played a large part in reducing people’s trust in online advertising. This is not a problem that was created overnight. There is a long history and growing sense of consumer frustration with the way their data is being used, analyzed and monetized and a similar frustration by advertisers with the transparency and legitimacy of ad clicks for which they are asked to pay.

There are continuing efforts by organizations like the IAB and TAG to create policies for better transparency such as ads.txt. But without hard and fast laws, the responsibility lies with individual companies.

One relatively simple yet largely spurned practice that would engender transparency and trust for the benefit of all parties (brands, consumers and ad/marketing providers) would be for the industry to come together and have all parties open their SDKs.

Why open-sourcing benefits advertisers, publishers and the ad industry

Open-source software is code that anyone is free to use, analyze, alter and improve.

Auditing the code and adjusting the SDKs functionality based on individual needs is a common practice — and so too are audits by security companies or interested parties who are rightly on the lookout for app fraud. By showing exactly how the code within the SDK has been written, it is the best way to reassure developers and partners that there are no hidden functions or unwanted features.

Everyone using open-source SDKs can learn exactly how it works, and because it is under an open-source license, anyone can suggest modifications and improvements in the code.

Open source brings some risks, but much bigger rewards

The main risk from opening up an SDK code is that third parties will look for ways to exploit it and insert their own malicious code, or else look at potential vulnerabilities to access back-end services and data. However, providers should be on the lookout and be able to fix the potential vulnerabilities as they arise.

As for the rewards, open-sourcing engenders trust and transparency, which should certainly translate into customer loyalty and consumer confidence. After all, we are all operating in a market where advertisers and developers can choose who they want to work with — and on what terms.

Selfishly but practically speaking, opening SDKs can also help companies in our industry protect themselves from others’ baseless claims that are simply intended to promote their products. With open standards, there are no unsubstantiated, false accusations intended for publicity. The proof is out there for everyone to see.

How ad tech is embracing open source

In the ad tech space, companies such as MoPub, Appodeal and AppsFlyer are just a few that have already made some or all of their SDKs available through an open-source license.

All of these companies have decided to use an open-source approach because they recognize the importance of transparency and trust, especially when you are placing the safety and reputation of your brand in the hands of an algorithm. However, the majority of SDKs remain closed.

Relying on forward-thinking companies to set their own transparency levels will only take our industry so far. It’s time for stronger action around trust and data transparency. In the same way that GDPR and COPPA have required companies to address privacy and, ultimately, to have forced a change that was needed, open-sourcing our SDKs will take the ad-marketing space to new heights and drive new levels of trust and deployment with our clients, competitors, legislators and consumers.

The industry-wide challenge of transparency won’t be solved any time soon, but the positive news is that there is movement in the right direction, with steps that some companies are already taking and others can easily take. By implementing measures to ensure brand-safe placements and helping limit ad fraud; improving relationships between brands, agencies, and programmatic partners; and bringing clarity to consumer data use; confidence in the advertising industry will improve and opportunities will subsequently grow.

That’s why we are calling on all ad/marketing companies to take this step forward with us — for the benefit of our consumers, brands, providers and industry at large — to embrace open-source SDKs as the way to engender trust, transparency and industry transformation. In doing so, we will all be rewarded with consumers who are more trusting of brands and brand advertising, and subsequently, brands who trust us and seek opportunities to implement more sophisticated solutions and grow their business.