Evidon hosted a consumer privacy conference on July 19 in New York City, which I attended. Evidon is a company that serves a small icon inside behaviorally targeted display ads so consumers can click to learn which companies are collecting personal information to target ads, and how to opt out of this practice.
The conference agenda centered on "our" industry's self-regulatory program called "Do Not Track" (D.N.T.). The experts on the panels were incredibly well-spoken, extremely well-educated on the subject matter, seemed like very nice people -- and, for the most part, were all full of b.s. This included the keynote speaker from the Federal Trade Commission, David Vladeck, whose title is Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, and Genie Barton, who works for the Council of the Better Business Bureau and is apparently responsible for enforcing the adoption of this program among advertisers and their agencies.
What I found so objectionable was the falseness in their collective voice when describing this program as good for consumers. D.N.T. is as much about protecting the interests of consumers as free checking (banks make a killing on overdraft penalties). D.N.T. is about making money. The best interests of consumers are an afterthought.
The bullshit flew throughout the day, reaching a peak when one agency executive pointed to the incredibly low opt-out rate -- which in his mind, demonstrated that consumers understand these ads are what keep the content free. Nothing could be farther from reality. A low opt-out rate indicates consumers don't want to dedicate "their time" to understand "our language" explaining the practice of data collection and how to opt out -- so they give up. Additionally, consumers don't believe their data won't be collected anyway, so why bother. The lack of click-through on these icons and lack of opting out for those who do click represent apathy and disgust, not acceptance. None of the speakers, panelists or those in the audience had an incentive to see this truth.
During a panel discussion about how opting out means "Do not target ads" but can still mean companies can "collect data" to use in other ways, I threw up a little in my mouth. When it was time for questions, I raised my hand, cleared my throat, and asked, "Why don't you just remove the 'N' from 'D.N.T' so this program becomes an opt-in choice for consumers instead of putting the onus on them to understand how to opt out? Wouldn't that solve a lot of problems for them?"
A flurry of responses came back from the panelists explaining why that would never work for us. The moderator then stepped in and asked the room, "Who thinks the D.N.T. program should be opt-in?" I was the only person to raise his hand.
One response to my question stood out. It came from a panelist named Leslie Harris, who is the president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology. Harris said, "The economic impact [of making this opt-in] would kill the industry. Web sites would go out of business."
When did it become a right to make money from advertising just because you created a Web site? By allowing companies to peer into the windows of consumer behavior without an invitation, essentially making it impossible for consumers to close their blinds, we are keeping low quality Web sites and shady companies in business.
If "D.N.T." became "D.T.," high quality sites would prosper from this incremental offering, low quality sites would either be eliminated or forced to improve their value proposition with their users -- and, most importantly, consumers would be treated like people and not like marks.
Note: If you would like to see our industry treat privacy issues as an opt-in process, "raise your hand" by typing "opt in" in the message boards below. I will be sharing this column and the subsequent responses with a person in Washington D.C. intimately involved in crafting privacy policies.