Making A Living On The Privacy Fault Line
One summer when I was home from college, I earned money by knocking on the front doors of houses with concrete curbs. I would ask whoever answered if they would like their house number painted on their bare curb, "so your house will be more easily spotted in case of any emergencies."
Ten minutes later, those who said yes paid me five bucks after approving my work. Not everyone was home or said yes -- but back then, painting the front curb of 10 houses in an afternoon covered my troubles that evening.
Now imagine if I were paid directly by a company like Target, for example - who, in return, received information about the shopping habits of residents living in the homes whose curbs were painted. Imagine further that local police and fire departments afforded me the right to paint these curbs without obtaining the homeowner's permission. The only houses skipped would be owners who contacted the authorities to have their home added to a "do-not-paint list."
In this imagined scenario, more homeowners would receive a beneficial service for free, the police and fire departments would find homes in need faster, and I would earn more money. This is the win-win-win argument suffocating the loss of consumer privacy online. You can't wake up tomorrow and trim your neighbor's tree and sell the clippings -- even if it increases the value of their home -- without their permission. Chopping away until your neighbor tells you to stop would literally break a law.
As an industry, we are trespassing every time data collected without consent drives an impression sold. Even worse, the industry's governing bodies -- made up of members who either paint curbs or sell paint -- are intentionally misinterpreting consumer non-action as consent.
Consumers wake up every morning wanting more rights in life, not less. This includes the right to choose to allow companies to monitor their private behavior as opposed to having to tell them not to. This difference between opt-in versus opt-out appears subtle, but is instead seismic, creating a fault line in the online industry. If the data collection practice were to change from opt-out to opt-in, many of us want to believe the entire industry would perish. This scare tactic is working -- but lost in this rhetoric industry members cling to to grow their fortunes, is that opt-out does irreparable harm to the value of online advertising. To see how, let's kick it back to the curb.
When paid by homeowners, I had an incentive to produce high-quality work. I was not paid unless the owner approved the finished product. This arrangement produced impeccably painted numbers for neighbors to see when evaluating the opportunity. If paid by a third-party entity, the incentive for quality washes away. I would get paid as long as I completed the job, so the less time each house took, the more money I would make.
Opt-out data collection provides a deterrent for publishers to invest in the quality of their content, because they can still make money selling ads regardless. That's why you find sites that should embarrass our publishing souls running ads for advertisers with blue-chip brands. The fewer ad dollars spent on quality content sites, the less investment made in content quality. With less quality to look at, advertisers increase their focus on performance metrics, which drives prices down even further.
We can debate my thesis, but you can't disagree that changing to opt-in is the best way to protect the rights of consumers. The folks leaving the biggest footprints in our industry must see this -- yet they will continue to ignore what they see, in order to fund bigger homes for themselves by kicking the rights of consumers to the curb.