Rounding Up The Privacy Debate

When we started the OMMA Behavioral shows two years ago, privacy was still regarded as an unwanted, if necessary, topic. The arguments were predictable ("We don't collect personally identifiable information -- next question"), and most people in the industry felt it was an issue that engaged only consumer advocates and journalists, anyway. Frankly, the privacy panels often cleared the room of attendees, who used that time as a chance to take an extended break.

In the last year, this situation has changed. The privacy panels are among the best-attended and the most exciting, both at OMMA Global super-shows and at the one-day OMMA Behavioral event. Our own ace regulatory reporter Wendy Davis keeps everyone's feet to the fire, and both the FTC and industry groups are arguing over more specific policy proposals and regulatory threats.

On July 30 in San Francisco, Wendy takes the lead again in a panel that will drill into a specific prospect for behavioral targeting: requiring consumers to opt into behavioral tracking and ad targeting systems. Can the ad and online content industries really survive if both must lure consumers into the digital targeting ecosystem? In speaking to some of the panelists in advance, I already know that this discussion is not going to engage opt-in/opt-out as an either/or proposition. Leaders in the privacy field and among the technology providers are starting to think harder about sophisticated alternatives.

The news regarding online privacy has been pouring in hot and heavy in just the last few days, so I think it's worthwhile to marshal the principal issues at hand as we move towards out own exploration of the issue next month.

To wit, it looks as if the opt-in model is going to get aired and tested legislatively soon. According to All Things D columnist Peter Kafka, Simulmedia CEO and behavioral targeting veteran Dave Morgan told a conference this week that Rep. Rich Boucher is drafting legislation to require a consumer opt-in before a publisher can serve up a third-party cookie.

Whatever the fate of this legislation, and the inevitable industry counterpoint that it would kill Internet content, Congress is responding to a real problem that digital media have not come close to solving: communications with consumers. According to a survey from Consumer Reports last fall, 61% of consumers believe that their online activities are private and are not shared without their permission. And 57% believe that companies must identify themselves and explain why they are collecting data (when they do) and with whom they are sharing. The disconnect between what consumers believe is going on online and the common practices of publishers and ad networks seems to be emerging as a key point for the debate. As we have seen here in recent columns, researchers are working hard at bringing to the surface for consumers the invisible web of connections among providers and their tracking technologies.

In fact, elements of the online marketing world will themselves be helping to surface this web of affiliations, according to a report today in the Wall Street Journal. The American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Association of National Advertisers, the Direct Marketing Association and the Interactive Advertising Bureau are behind a new program that would put an icon on Web sites and on ads to alert users their online activities are being tracked. The icon would then let the user see the companies with whom the data is being shared and have the chance to opt out. Publishers could design their Web sites in ways that promote the privacy icon, thus taking a more pro-active role in exposing their affiliations.

A rudimentary example of this approach is available already in the Ghostery browser add-on. This Firefox addition detects when Web bug scripts are present on a page. When clicked, the alert pops up a list of providers identified in the bugs.

Until recently the opt-out model has been difficult to defend, if only because sites and advertisers couldn't seem to find a reasonable way of informing consumers they were being tracked and even had anything to opt out from. Combining opt-out with a tangible mode of communicating with consumers seems to go farther than previous efforts. We may even see this proposed model in the wild by the time OMMA Behavioral convenes.

Finally, the most important event this week surrounding privacy was the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection hearing yesterday in Washington. Representatives from Google, Yahoo and Facebook all testified. The full statements of participants and the subcommittee Chairs are available online, along with video streams featuring the full testimony and a Q&A. The Congressmen were especially interested in what opt-out actually meant to major portals like Google and Yahoo, and whether this removed the data from use or just from ad targeting. The guts of the Q&A occurs in the middle of the second stream available at the site.

We will engage these issue at length in San Francisco, and I would urge our readers to send us questions they would like to see addressed in the privacy panel at OMMA Behavioral.

What is most obvious in just the last few days is how much the discussion of BT and privacy has moved forward. We now have some viable models to discuss and tinker with, whether it is the Google Ad Preferences site or the upcoming Web site privacy alert icon. The participants have gotten well beyond the "No PII - argument over" lament, and are now starting to address nuance -- for example, how opt-ins and opt-outs are constructed fairly and unfairly. How information has to be tied to the process of managing privacy. How the onus must be on publishers and advertisers, not consumers, to open the topic and create reasonable ways to discuss it.

Finally, it seems, the serious discussion has begun.

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4 comments about "Rounding Up The Privacy Debate".
  1. Warren Lee from WHL Consulting , June 26, 2009 at 2:38 p.m.

    Steve, you certainly covered the subject well. One comment that I have is: If users are able to indicate to a web site publisher that they do not want to support the advertising model for online content (i.e. either by opting out or by denying a cookie) then I think the next page they are taken to should be a payment page. Online content needs to be paid for in some manner, cash or advertising that has enough money behind it so that the web site is supported. The old adage applies (in paraphrase): "No one rides for free."

  2. Paul Van winkle from FUNCTION , June 26, 2009 at 2:51 p.m.


    What's crucial at this stage is putting aside bullshit and returning to some basic truths. And I frankly don't see or hear much of that in the circles mentioned; and the data 'war' has become clouded in bullshit.

    1. To sell more products and services to more people over longer periods at higher prices, intelligent marketers plainly and aggressively want (and know they need) deeper and wider consumer profile and personal information to more effectively sell to them -- to get in and underneath of the walls consumers try and put up. ALL aggressive marketers want more and more current consumer information, ALL the time, and this drive will only become more aggressive and adept as the wills and ways become more pronounced.

    2. Most (aware) consumers do NOT want aggressive marketers to have their personal information because it IS sold, re-sold and often mis-used by faceless, nameless, irresponsible, lawyer-rich entities, who face no oversight or penalties fir their 'sins'. And most consumers have had at least some negative experiences and consequences as a result of aggressive, faceless, legalized marketers mis-using their personal information.

    These are facts. You guys need to consider starting from Power Ground ZERO and being advocates for FACT-based discussions.

    Because if obfuscation of the real and growing power disagreements between the two groups continues, future results for both will likely be poor. And consumers will have every right reason to disengage, drop out and stop spending.

  3. Catherine Dwyer from Pace University , June 29, 2009 at 12:03 p.m.

    Another great post on this topic Steve!
    The opt-in versus opt-out debate assumes the status quo with respect to the knowledge of the consumer about tracking, and that the Swiss cheese state of our current web browsers will continue to function as enablers for tracking.

    Researchers have pointed out that any "persistent state," i.e. any data associated with the browser can be used for tracking. So if people clear cookies, then they will be tracked using the storage in their Flash plug-ins.

    This only works because current browsers do a terrible job managing data and temporary files left behind by web servers. However, a "one click clear" could wipe out every last little tracker or beacon, thus destroying tracking. That is not a difficult tool, and one I am starting to work on with students at Pace (as a plug-in for Mozilla). One we identify all the little pockets that trackers are being planted in the browser, we will be able to clean them out in one fell swoop.

    So once consumers find out they are being tracked, and they can kill it with one click, then BT as we know it is dead anyway, opt in or opt out.

  4. Tony Evans , June 30, 2009 at 6:55 a.m.

    Any debate about online privacy seems to attract anti-advertising extremists, as VanWinkle’s post amply demonstrates. I believe that most consumers actually like some advertising – if it introduces them to products and services that they are interested in and might want to buy. Surely people have enough willpower to decide whether they then go ahead and buy it or not? What people really don’t like is to be bombarded with vast amounts of advertising that is totally irrelevant to them.
    The ability to deliver advertising based on interests gathered and stored anonymously - without involving any personal data at any stage - should be a new development that everyone welcomes.

    It’s right that sites should clearly post information about what data is being collected, when and what it is used for – whether this is for advertising or other services. If the benefits of this data collection are then clearly and simply explained then I also believe most consumers would not opt out. Yes, the “ noPII” debate has moved on to one of “notice and informed consent” but we should not forget that delivering relevant ads without involving any PII is a real step forward in protecting privacy – while also being a real benefit to consumers.

    There is a small, but very active and noisy contingent, who miss no opportunity to whip up hysteria around this subject. Surely it is not beyond our wit to effectively counter these misguided and mistaken views. The IAB have made a good start with this in the UK; if we stop being so defensive and start pro-actively explaining then consumers and regulators might see through the scaremongering of the anti-ad brigade and deal with the facts, not the fury.