Ourdata’s charitable ad-blocking solution

The "ad enabler" reimburses users for having their data collected and used by brands.

By Chris Powell

Journalists sure do love a good metaphorical quote, so I literally had to restrain myself from celebrating like fictional newsman Ron Burgundy when, early in our 30-minute interview, Iggy Fanlo proclaimed: “Data is the new oil, and everybody has drilling rights.” I will admit to a slight fist pump, however.

Fanlo is the CEO and co-founder of Ourdata, a San Francisco company launched this year that is working to align the needs of consumers, publishers and brands while navigating one of the internet’s thorniest issues: ad blocking.

He spent 15 years on Wall Street before embarking on a career in tech that includes a nearly seven-year stint as president of Shopping.com, a year as vice-president of eBay, and nearly six years as CEO of the independent advertising exchange AdBrite.

“I was at the forefront of seeing data mined and turned into gold, and it didn’t feel right,” he says, noting that customer data is worth billions of dollars to publishers and brands before following it up with the aforementioned quote.

Ourdata operates much like a regular ad blocker, except its users can opt to receive advertising on some – or even all – of the websites they visit in exchange for payment. Fanlo prefers to call it an “ad enabler.”

While the amount of compensation users will receive has not yet been determined, Fanlo speculates it could ultimately be between $50 and $100 a year, possibly more depending on the sensitivity of the data they are willing to provide.

He speculates, for example, that people could one day receive “hundreds of dollars” a year if they’re willing to provide valuable health data. “For someone in Silicon Valley, that maybe doesn’t move the needle, but for 97% of the world, that’s life-changing,” says Fanlo.

Ourdata, meanwhile, generates revenue by charging brands and publishers for access to this customer data in order to serve them more relevant ads. As a public benefit corporation or “B corp” (the same designation that applies to companies like Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and Etsy), Ourdata has pledged to return 90% of that revenue to its users.

The launch comes as consumers are becoming more aware of their personal data’s value. The latest version of Aimia’s global Loyalty Lens report (based on interviews with 15,000 people in nine countries) found that the number of people who view their personal data as “highly valuable” jumped to 42% this year, up from 29% in 2014.

According to the study, the average American sets the value of online data — such as browsing history and purchases — at $52, compared with $50 for Canadians and Australians, $35 for Britons, $24 for Indians and $18 for residents of the United Arab Emirates. Canadians also pegged information such as their street address, e-mail and phone details at $50, compared with $33 for Americans.

However, the study also found that more than 40% of consumers know their data is valuable to companies but don’t know how it is collected, what is being collected, and how they can maintain control of their personal information. In addition, more than three-quarters (77%) of respondents indicated that they would like to have more control over what data companies hold about them.

Fanlo describes Ourdata as a “consumer data union,” even likening it to the original labour unions that sought to correct the imbalance between companies’ profits and the wellbeing of their workers.

“We just want to give the money to the people because they deserve it with the data they’re generating,” he explains. “Quite frankly, it’s the right thing to do. One of the big reasons I did this is because I’m a firm believer in basic income.”

The company has also aligned with the Bay Area chapter of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, a breast cancer research non-profit, meaning that users can divert any earnings toward the charity rather than keeping them for themselves.

Ad blocking, of course, has emerged as a major trouble spot for digital publishers and their advertisers, with a recent report from eMarketer predicting that 86.6 million Americans – including a whopping two-thirds of millennials – will use an ad blocker by 2017.

There are others seeking to build a bridge between publishers and those who use ad blockers. Brendan Eich’s Brave browser is positioned as a user data-friendly ad server that acts as an intermediary, serving ads it deems safe on its users behalf and offering publishers cash in return. When it launched, however, many publishers weren’t happy. An open letter from 17 major publishers called Brave “blatantly illegal.”

Fanlo says that when Ourdata has amassed enough users, it will be able to provide a permanent solution to what he calls the “ad-blocking problem.”

“Once we start to pay people, I’m very convinced we’ll be able to get millions, if not hundreds of millions of people [signed on],” he says.

He says that the enticement for publishers is the ability to retain a good chunk of the advertising revenue currently being lost to the major ad blocking companies.

Fanlo and his co-developers spent two years developing Ourdata before formally launching the company with an iOS app during the summer. Recognizing that about 95% of all ad blocking is taking place on desktop, Ourdata launched an extension for the Chrome browser about three weeks ago. Since then, Ourdata’s user base has swelled to approximately 5,000 people.

Fanlo says that Ourdata continues to receive “really good acceptance” from publishers such as the independent culture site Popmatters.com. He says that the company is in various stages of negotiation with another eight to 10 publishers, and has amassed another 100 or so qualified leads.

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