From its inception, the internet has always had something of the Wild West about it. For every pioneer and trailblazer looking to chart new territories, there’s always been an outlaw waiting in the wings for an opportunity to strike. The internet is yet to mature into a safe and fair place. Wild areas remain: one of them is programmatic advertising, argues the Ozone Project’s Damon Reeve.

Advertising is the lifeforce of the internet – it always has been. What’s different today is that the automation technologies behind programmatic have made it easier and cheaper to distribute highly targeted and personalised adverts to a mass audience. This has been a welcome innovation for advertisers, but it has come with a significant cost: it has eroded trust.

As consumers, we are wary of ‘creepy’ adverts that seem to know too much about us and follow us from device to device, platform to platform. As publishers, we worry about the loss of value as tech giants disintermediate our businesses. As companies, we worry about the safety of our brands as adverts appear in unwelcome places and at unwelcome times. And as citizens we worry about the accuracy and truth of everything we see online – from adverts to news items to social media feeds.

So, what is being done to bring order to this state of affairs? Given the size of the global advertising market – estimated to reach $616 billion this year, of which just under half will go to digital – this is a crucial question to answer. An erosion in trust threatens this market, just as it threatens to undermine a valuable source of information and entertainment for consumers.

What’s needed is a way to move from our current ‘Toxic Web’ to a new ‘Trusted Web’; a place where users can have confidence in the content they consume thanks to clear provenance and governance. In this Trusted Web, advertising is by nature transparent, verified, relevant and effective.

The obvious choice for helping to create the Trusted Web are lawmakers and regulators. And there is, indeed, welcome evidence that regulators are stepping up their efforts to de-toxify the web. The EU’s landmark GDPR, for example, has improved data privacy protections for EU citizens, and the bloc has been applying increasing pressure on the tech giants to ensure fair practice. More broadly, there is talk of forced breakups, or more stringent regulations to try and open the social media, online search and other key markets.

However, as has proven the case to date, regulatory improvements take time. The internet has grown so rapidly that regulators and governments around the world are still catching up – and by the time they do, the internet had evolved again, and completely new issues must be addressed. What’s more, the cultural and legal differences between countries makes the effective regulation of a global internet nigh on impossible.

Creating the Trusted Web through global regulatory standards is therefore unlikely. That means we must look elsewhere to find a driver for effective change. For me, there can be no better place to start than with the very people that rely most on a trustworthy, well-functioning internet: brands and publishers.

There is much that can be done here. Industry bodies can (and indeed are) introducing standards and frameworks to fill the gaps left by regulators. ‘Kitemarks’ of content quality will enable users to have confidence in the veracity and safety of the content they consume online.

There is a more fundamental first step that brands and publishers can take today to help bring the Trusted Web into existence. While still leveraging the benefits of automation and programmatic delivery where applicable, brands and publishers should look to reintroduce the creativity and thought that has traditionally defined the industry – rebalancing efficiency in favour of quality.

Publishers must focus unremittingly on brand safety, while adding value to brands by offering more hands-on and bespoke products that are well-considered and better able to meet the needs of consumers. Brands, meanwhile, must hold their suppliers up to the highest standards of brand safety and be prepared to move their business elsewhere if these standards aren’t met. While this change will impact programmatic efficiencies, gains in trust and confidence make this an acceptable trade-off.

If we’re to build confidence in online content and maximise the opportunities on offer to brands and publishers, we can’t afford to wait for the regulators. As an industry, we must act now. Programmatic has eroded content quality and safety, and we must reclaim this as a first step. By increasing transparency between brands and publishers and focusing on high-quality, targeted placement over mass-broadcast, we can go a long way toward protecting brands and rebuilding consumer trust. Let’s get to work.