Web Radicals Might Mean Business. The Industry Should, Too

The NETives are getting restless. Yes, alongside their anti-cookie brothers-in-arms, freedom-fighter factions are taking to the virtual streets in an effort to sabotage Web publishers and the data they rely on to stay in business. Call 'em the Free My Media Coalition or The Web-Stir Underground. Whatever these Web warriors are called, their uprising could have both positive and negative effects on publishers, advertisers, and vendors in the behavioral targeting (BT) industry.

On Monday, Wired News reported on a group of Flickr users who refuse to create Yahoo! accounts in order to continue using the free photo display and community service, now that the publishing powerhouse has purchased Flickr. In essence, they see Yahoo! as a Web behemoth that's swallowed up their friendly neighborhood meeting place. The fact that Yahoo!, and by extension, Flickr, want to profit from their personal images flies in the face of this small but vocal collective's belief that the Web should be a free and open place. Sure, in exchange for establishing a free Yahoo! account, they'll continue to get the cool photo album and social networking service they appreciate; but, this evidently is an intrusion they're not willing to allow.

And then there's "Internet Advertiser Wakeup Day." Apparently affiliated with phony site log-in generator, BugMeNot.com, the online petition to "Internet Advertisers" reads, "We, the undersigned, wish to demonstrate the pointless nature of forced Web site registration schemes and the dubious demographic data they collect. On November 13th, we will each register an account using fake details at one or more of these top 10 offending sites: www.nytimes.com, www.washingtonpost.com, www.latimes.com, www.ajc.com, www.chicagotribune.com, www.dallasnews.com, www.nypost.com, www.baltimoresun.com, www.philly.com, www.mercurynews.com."

As of Thursday, nearly 800 people had signed the petition. A free online petition hosting service, PetitionOnline.com, is facilitating the petition. Oddly, some of those signatories indicated clearly in their signature comments that they do not support the goal of the petition.

Let's set aside the fact that people have been submitting false data ever since the dawn of Web forms, and focus on the potential impact of such anti-data collection Internet protests. They may seem like the ineffectual efforts of a few net nut jobs with nothing better to do but foment movements against their demon of the week. But that's what people said about the Swift Boat Vets.

I'm not predicting that either of these relatively obscure campaigns will gain ground; however, they represent a growing distrust of online data collection, which is essentially the lifeblood of BT, as well as the rest of the online ad industry. Without it, online publishers have little leverage over traditional media when it comes to garnering ad dollars. They have a tough time enough as it is.

If more and more people refuse to divulge information in exchange for content or insist on corrupting registration data with false names, ZIP codes, and e-mail addresses (like Wakeup Day petitioners, "CobraCommander" and "Namey Name," are wont to do) what choice do advertisers have but to use BT and other targeting technologies that help advertisers reach the right users? In the short run, an anti-registration movement might be beneficial for BT.

Still, BT-enabled site publishers and BT tech vendors sometimes rely upon the ability to supplement behavioral data with site registration data. And more importantly, they rely on an unsaid agreement of sorts between Web publishers and users: We'll let you read, play, rant, watch, and listen for free as long as you tell us a little bit about yourself and/or view some ads. To the majority of Web users, this is a reasonable price to pay for what the Internet gives them back. Those banking on the continuation of such a contract, however, had best hope it stays that way. And they'd be wise to impress upon those seemingly feckless rabble rousers the significance of that contract for the survival of the Web as they've come to know it.

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