Evidon measured sites across the Internet and found the number of web-tracking tags from ad servers, analytics companies, audience-segmenting firms, social networks and sharing tools up 53% in the past year. (The ones in Mandarin were probably set by the Chinese army.) But only 45% of the tracking tools were added to sites directly by publishers. The rest were added by publishers’ partners, or THEIR partners' partners.
Clearly data is unknowingly being transferred from one company to another in a series of data "hops.” In fact, Evidon found that nearly 29% of tracking technologies were deployed in two hops, around 13% in three, and nearly 10% were deployed in four degrees of separation from the publisher.
Putting aside the notion that this is stealing user data that can be monetized directly to ad buyers, or even resold in bulk data transactions via various exchanges -- thus screwing up the publisher who built the content to attract the audience in the first place -- it is one of those things that gives privacy advocates an erection.
Did all of those entities think their ad tags would go unnoticed? Did they not read the Wall Street Journal’s "What They Know" series, where reporters learned much of what they disclosed by simply reading ad tag codes on major websites? And did the publishers learn nothing when the WSJ called and asked them about those tags? "Gee, really? Never saw those before…" was not an acceptable answer, although it was the norm – and, you would have thought, sufficient to light a fire under the online ad industry. Apparently not.
This is just the kind of low-hanging fruit that gets stuck under the noses of local, state and national representatives and encourages them to make a name for themselves by sponsoring privacy bills. Increasingly all of the "you will stifle innovation" and "hurt our ability to serve free content" cries will go into the wind that will eventually blow a chilled air down Silicon Valley and Alley alike.
I have spent the better part of the last 15 years defending cookie-setting and tracking to help improve advertising. But it is really hard when the prosecution presents the evidence, and it has ad industry fingerprints all over it -- every time. There was a time when "no PII" was an acceptable defense, but now that data is being compiled and cross-referenced from dozens, if not hundreds, of sources, you can no longer say this with a straight face. And we are way past the insanity plea.
I know there are lots of user privacy initiatives out there to discourage the bad apples and get all of the good ones on the same page. But clearly self-regulation is not working the way we promised Washington it would.
I appreciate the economics of this industry, and know that it is imperative to wring every last CPM out of every impression -- but after a while, folks not in our business simply don't care anymore, and will move to kill any kind of tracking that users don't explicitly opt in to.
And when that happens, you can't say, "Who knew?"