A Cookie, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma

Last week I tried to get all literary in my approach to the cookie deletion problem that's been irking behavioral marketers and other online ad folk. But there's no need to liken cookies and privacy infringement to homeland security issues, or anything else for that matter. A very real example of how one company's potential cookie nightmare could be used to its benefit -- and perhaps the benefit of all companies relying on the legitimate use of cookies -- exists today.

Transparency must be a major component of any company or industry-wide effort to educate users about the plus side of cookies. Most people, I hope, agree on that. Surreptitious cookie serving is neither appreciated by the tech geeks who track them down nor by the Joe Schmos who eventually find out some company they never heard of watched what they did on Yahoo! last week. Omniture should know. The Web analytics firm is smack dab in the middle of a mini controversy that, whether or not it causes the company any damage, foreshadows more widespread cookie outrage to come. And I doubt any behavioral targeting firm or publisher or advertiser is immune.

Here's the deal: In the past few months, clued-in Web users began noticing cookies on their hard drives with a cryptic label that ended with, "2o7.net." It turned out that those cookies had been placed by Omniture, and, in some cases, were tracking sensitive interactions on sites like Ameritrade and PayPal and even free tax-filing sites. While other firms that place cookies name them in a more recognizable fashion, Omniture chose to apply this seemingly arbitrary, and not exactly straightforward, nomenclature to its cookies.

A July 29 Wall Street Journal Online story by David Kesmodel detailed the 2o7.net drama and Omniture's response. As expressed by Omniture detractors both in that article, and more colorfully in comments on various blogs, the clandestine quality of the 2o7.net cookie has gotten under people's skin. (Of course, being a cookie, it's already quite hidden; thus, a little like Churchill's description of Russia: "It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.)

According to the Journal report, Omniture didn't have a pa rticular reason for choosing the 2o7.net domain beyond wanting something short that provides "flexibility." Following the paper's inquiries, the firm decided to redirect www.2o7.net to the Omniture corporate site; apparently it came up blank before. The company also plans to point the domain to educational content aimed at consumers that will discuss how cookies are used.

The Journal story only came out about two weeks ago, but there's been scuttlebutt about Omniture's cookies on the Web for several months -- surely enough time for Omniture to learn of the situation and deal with it -- if they've been paying attention. Creating educational content redirected from a domain that most people affected by the 2o7.net cookies don't know to visit seems almost as stealthy an approach as the one that raised so much ire in the first place. If you ask me, this is a chance for Omniture and the companies using its services to get the good word out (on their sites, in the blogs, and so on) before it's drowned by negativity.

The reality is, it's the concealed presence of all cookies, no matter what their label, that has a growing number of people feeling violated. No matter the reason - opportunistic spyware blocking companies, consumer misunderstanding, media fear-mongering, warranted security concerns, whatever - people don't like the idea of little agents watching and noting their every move. As mass media outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times continue to cover the cookies and other tracking technologies that could make or break so many Web businesses, including those using behavioral targeting, it's going to take a lot more than a hidden Web site to assuage fears and increase consumer acceptance.

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