Jim Brock of PrivacyChoice.org discovered something interesting on his way to crafting privacy tools that consumers could use to monitor and opt out of tracking system. A good number of the consumers using his Privacy Widget, plug-in, and Privacy Bookmark tools really weren't opting out -- they just liked the transparency of it all.
"The most important learning is that process matter," Brock says. He argues it is easy to misread some of the low opt-out rates that companies like Google report coming from their Ad Preferences feature, which lets Google users track and block the behavioral targeting the site practices. "You can step back from the static and the numbers you see about privacy and conclude it only matters to hardcore privacy nuts," he says. "But we have lots of people who come through who don't op out, but tell us they feel better about targeted advertising because there was a process that showed the publisher and the network cared -- that consumers had information and options."
If Brock is right, then ad-tracking transparency could be its own reward. "We know now through programs like TRUSTe that a relatively small number of people choose to opt out because they are satisfied with the process," he says.
There has been a tendency among marketers and publishers to play peek-a-boo with their own consumer protection initiatives, with hidden, small-print privacy policies, often obtuse or incomplete disclosure statements, and a reticence to make it too easy to opt out. This tendency to address privacy half-heartedly and warily may ultimately be counter productive, Brock warns, because it just makes the advertiser and publisher look cagy to consumers. "People can smell the lack of choice a mile away," he says. "They can see a good process versus a bad process. If you educate them and give them choices, then they are happy." ROI may best be served by transparency and clarity. "Don't hide the ball or push stuff below the fold or make users click more than a couple of times to effect choices."
Brock's PrivacyChoice.org has been operating for over a year in an effort to aggregate but also categorize and simplify publisher and ad net tracking and privacy policies. His staff boils down policy into four key components: anonymity, data sharing, tracking in sensitive content categories, and how long the data is retained. When conveying to consumers what a publisher or network is doing with your data in background, he insists it is possible to make this system clear.
"It is easy to talk yourself into the idea that these things are too complicated to provide in less than 8-point type," Brock says. "We have looked at and summarized hundreds of privacy policies and they fall into some well defined categories." He urges publishers and nets to work in more binary frameworks that make the process easier. They either do or don't share information. They either do or don't associate data with personally identifiable information. They either do or don't delete the data in a year. "Plain language in summary form is effective," he says. "You can't fear giving the consumer a real punchline."
PrivacyChoice.org recently started a pilot project with TRUSTe to let publishers create privacy widgets for their own sites that automatically provides privacy disclosures to users.
A browser plug-in has been available for a while and Brock more recently issued a Privacy Bookmark that users can just drag into their browser favorites to apply and keep fresh their preferences across the sites they visit. The user sets the preferences at the PrivacyChoice.org site and the bookmark makes them portable and even transferable via bookmark synching tools.
There are of course a number of data collection notification systems already out there and emerging, like BetterAdvertising's in-ad icons and of course TRUSTe's privacy verification program, along with a host of other consumer plug-ins and opt-out tools. Brock says that self-regulation is likely to be a multi-pronged effort involving several groups and solutions. "Everyone seems to agree that having several companies innovating and developing privacy enhancing-technology is a good thing." As his test project with TRUSTe demonstrates, "I think the companies involved are committed to working together when it makes sense."
Over 260,000 consumers have registered their preferences with PrivacyChoice.org and the site receives about 35,000 uniques a month.
If we read consumer behaviors around privacy monitoring with the same care as marketers look at buying and browsing habits, then the users themselves may be telling you the next steps to take. Don't fear transparency. It might work in your favor. "Hide the ball and everybody loses," Brock says.