Give Consumers a Choice

Cookies, and by default the online advertising industry, have taken their share of punches lately. Industry trade publications and mainstream media outlets have written endlessly about reports that show large numbers of consumers are routinely deleting cookies from their computers. Then Walt Mossberg, one of the most well respected technology reporters in the country, weighed in via his Wall Street Journal column and registered his strong dislike for what he calls "tracking" cookies.

As Dave Morgan pointed out in his MediaPost column, our industry has to work on educating consumers about the need for and benefits derived from cookies. Consumers need to understand that an Internet without a cookie-enabled targeted advertising model will inevitably lead to more and more content accessible only by subscription or micro-payments.

I would, contend, however, that changing and altering consumer knowledge is an expensive and lengthy proposition. We could spend inordinate amounts of time, energy, and money, and barely move the needle on consumer perception of cookies. Lowest-common-denominator reporting in national broadcast media only makes this challenge more imposing. Cookies are inaccurately lumped into much larger articles that I would describe as sensationalized, Internet scare stories: "Beware of cookies. Marketers are watching you," etc.

As an industry, we need to provide consumers with an informed choice -- to opt-out of cookies. I would further argue that this choice shouldn't be buried deep within an ad network's site or privacy policy, but should be offered to consumers within every single ad that we serve them. Anti-spyware companies, which have a huge impact on the cookie deletion rate, also need to give consumers an informed choice. Currently some of those software programs label most third-party cookies as potential threats. Anti-spyware companies don't offer consumers the information that they need to make an informed choice about deleting cookies. Following the labeling of third-party cookies as threats, most consumers delete them without knowing how this practice affects their online experience.

Why won't anti-spyware companies give consumers more information so they can make an educated choice about which cookies to delete? The reason for this is clear: it's currently in the economic interest of anti-spyware companies to demonize cookies as harmful. With many spyware and adware companies changing their policies and business models in the face of pending legislation, the rationale for anti-spyware software has begun to fade. The response of anti-spyware companies has been to attempt to prove the usefulness of their software by labeling and defining cookies as harmful threats.

If the online ad industry were to adopt a strong opt-out policy and give consumers a choice regarding third-party cookies, it would create a stronger argument for anti-spyware companies to stop labeling third-party cookies as threats. If we, as an industry, give consumers a choice at every opportunity to opt-out from third-party cookies, the vendors of anti-spyware software will no longer have a legitimate or logical argument for labeling these cookies as threats.

When anti-spyware companies refuse to provide consumers with specific information about cookies, they do consumers a disservice by erasing cookies that are used to identify consumers who have opted out. Imagine the following scenario after we enable cookie opt-out directly from our banners: Angry consumers will contact ad networks or other companies that employ behavioral targeting technology to find out why they are still receiving targeted ads after opting-out. When that happens, we'll explain to consumers that their anti-spy software deleted the opt-out cookie without informing them which cookies correlate with each ad. Consumers will quickly learn that it's better not to erase cookies using their anti-spyware software or browsers, but instead to opt-out only from the ads they find offensive by using the opt-out links within the ads while leaving the other cookies untouched.

As an industry we claim that we provide consumers with a service. If we really believe in the service that we're providing, we should also allow consumers who don't like our service to opt-out.