If the Ad Industry Really is Serious about Transparency, Could Open-source SDKs be a Solution?

The struggle for the industry is not necessarily a lack of intent around transparency, but rather how to deliver it.

Michael Wang, Mintegral Senior Product Director2020-09-24

Year after year, a lack of transparency in how ad traffic is sourced, sold and measured is cited by advertisers. But despite progress on the protection and privacy of data through laws like GDPR and COPPA, the overall picture regarding 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 simpler and clearer. So the struggle for the industry is not necessarily a lack of intent around transparency, but rather how to deliver it.

There are continuing efforts by organisations like the IAB and MMA to build policies for better transparency such as ads.txt. But without hard and fast laws, the responsibility lies with individual companies. Frustratingly, evidence shows that the way data is collected and used by some in the ad industry has played a large part in reducing people’s overall trust in online advertising.

Maybe this is because the increasing complexity of digital advertising and a focus on performance metrics and cost means that transparency has become a secondary concern. If that’s the case, then the challenge is how we can ensure this never happens again. 

 

Why open sourcing benefits Mintegral, our customers and the ad industry

Our decision to open up our SDK and allow anyone to see how it works for themselves isn’t just about being more transparent; we believe that it’s something the wider ad industry needs to do if it’s to engender trust from advertisers.

We know that with more transparency comes more scrutiny. Open-source software is code that anyone is free to use, analyze, alter, and improve. From now on our clients are able to audit our code and adjust the SDK functionality based on their needs - and so too are any security companies or interested parties who are rightly on the lookout for app fraud. By showing exactly how the code within the SDKs have been programmed, it is the best way to reassure developers and partners that there are no malicious functions or unwanted features. 

The Mintegral SDK is already being used in thousands of mobile apps. Now, as we open it up, anyone and everyone using it can learn exactly how it works. This not only shows developers exactly how the SDK will function once it’s integrated with their app, but it also means there is much lower risk of third parties injecting code or unwanted functions to hijack the SDK. This is good news for developers, as it means less effort and cost from them to ensure their apps remain uncompromised.

Mintegral has a proven record of adapting anti-fraud measures and working towards greater transparency for advertisers. We’ve committed to the adoption of App-Ads.txt, and have received open measurement SDK certification from the IAB Tech Lab. We are both COPPA and GDPR compliant,  and earlier this year we increased the transparency of our publisher inventory by adding support for Sellers.json and Supply Chain Object - another initiative under the IAB Tech Lab. 

And in further good news, at the end of August Mintegral’s parent company, Mobvista, was officially SOC2 Type 1 certified, meaning the company has been judged to meet approved standards of security, availability, and processing integrity of its systems when working with customers and partners. Mobvista is the first mobile advertising company in the industry to obtain the SOC2 accreditation.

Mintegral has always been a major advocate for data privacy, security, and transparency, so our decision to adopt an open-source approach for our SDK is absolutely consistent with our ongoing approach.

 

Open-source brings some risks - but much bigger rewards

As part of the process of making our network SDK open-source we’ve removed some tracking events from the code. The removal of these events will undoubtedly have an impact on the effectiveness of the ad recommendations generated by the SDK as we’ll be gaining less insight into how users are behaving and viewing ads on their devices. However, as our recommendation engine - which is separate to the SDK - evolves we are confident that we’ll be able to deliver an even better user experience for developers and advertisers who choose to work with us.

The main risk from opening up our SDK code? That third-parties will look for ways to exploit it and insert their own malicious code, or else look at potential vulnerabilities to access our back-end services and data. We know how robust our security measures already are, but we will continue to enhance our ability to prevent network attacks, to ensure that any risks are minimised as far as possible.

We operate in a market where advertisers and developers can choose who to work with. We are confident that our steps to increase the openness with which we operate can only result in positives. By showing we have nothing to hide, we are making a very public commitment to greater transparency through our actions, and not just words.

 

How other ad tech companies are embracing open-source

In the ad tech space, companies such as Mopub, Appodeal, AdMob and Adjust are a few who have made some or all of their SDKs available through an open-source license. Now, Mintegral has also become the ad network SDK open-source to increase the transparency of the entire mobile advertising ecosystem.

All of these companies have decided to use an open-source approach because they recognise 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.

But 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 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.

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 all parties can take. By implementing measures to ensure brand-safe placements and help limit ad fraud, improve relationships between brands, agencies, and programmatic partners, and bring clarity to consumer data use, transparency in the advertising industry will improve.

There’s no reason why more ad tech companies cannot embrace open-source as a way forward. For our part, we’ll continue to encourage our fellow ad-tech companies to join us in this initiative, and in so doing increase the transparency of the entire mobile advertising ecosystem.

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Michael Wang is the Senior Product Director for Mintegral
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