Democratizing BT

Founder and executive director of the Center For Digital Democracy, Jeff Chester keeps a picture of muckraking journalist I.F. Stone above his desk for inspiration. Like Stone, Chester is a persistent critic of undisclosed government and business practices. With support from MacArthur, Ford and Rockefeller funds, the CDD monitors the evolution of digital commerce and marketing -- especially their impact on privacy and concentrated power. Most recently, the CDD filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over the practices of the behavioral targeting industry. We asked Chester to discuss the roots of his criticism of BT and digital marketing generally.

Behavioral Insider: What is the mission of the CDD?

Jeff Chester: We are in a critical transition period of media. How do you ensure that the emerging media systems evolve in a way that supports robust debate, diversity of expression, in-depth news and public affairs, institutions that provide the public with an array of consumer and cultural information as well as the healthy advertising and entertainment?

Behavioral Insider: Since you put it in those terms, aren't you heartened by the emergence of user-generated media? Isn't this a sign of a healthy shift in power?

Chester: I think it is directly connected to my concern with behavioral targeting and the rest of online ad technology and the market structure. There is still a question about which voices will really resonate the most and what forces will shape online. The structure of this new world is being defined now, and whether or not we have a system which indeed reflects the interests of the many -- or still principally serves the vested interests of a few -- I think is still to be determined.

How does the advertising market evolve? Does it promote real competition and diversity of content, so that these new voices can actually reach and influence and inform the public in meaningful ways -- and not just speak to themselves in small networks? [That] is the crucial question. It raises questions about whether or not this so-called user-generated era is one where individual and collective expression will ultimately have the kind of resonance tomorrow that it does today. I am not against advertising, as long as [people] are given all the information, have the right to say yay or nay, and [to say] that the information about them is used for the purposes intended.

Behavioral Insider: What exactly have you filed with the FTC concerning BT?

Chester: I grew increasingly alarmed about the rapid growth of interactive advertising's capabilities, in particular BT where increasing numbers of data sets about users were being incorporated. And then in the last year and a half [there's] the emergence of retargeting, which now permits marketers to literally shadow individual users from site to site. The industry itself claims that the use of BT and retargeting allows for positive 'conversions.' I also feel you cannot isolate BT from the other set of powerful interactive collection and marketing techniques which have emerged .You have to look at the interactive advertising ecology to make the proper critique. We filed a complaint saying in essence that the entire field of online advertising as it related to data collection, principally BT, was unfair and deceptive. The good news is that as a result of our complaint, the FTC opened up the investigation so they looked at online profiling.

[Still] it's not [entirely] what we wanted. We wanted the FTC to rule that in the absence of full disclosure and user consent, BT is unfair and deceptive and should be prohibited.

Behavioral Insider: What sort of full disclosure and open consent would satisfy you?

Chester: This opt-out from the National Advertising Initiative is not enough. They need to say on a first-time basis (and revisit it regularly), that we engage in the following practices. We are putting the cookie on your computer. We're assigning you a unique number. We are tracking your behaviors and we are noting the following, and this is all intended not just to better serve you but to help our advertising and marketing appear.

I think retargeting is complicated to explain. Is this data going to be shared? Will they direct ads to you on a variety of sites, including sites unrelated to your initial visit? I think the ad networks can do this; they can be a one-stop shop. They can't just track people and get [them] to engage in a variety of behaviors without fully informing them that this is going on -- and getting complete permission in advance to do so.

Behavioral Insider: What do you fear about this data collection?

Chester: Nobody wants a system where there is a strong force supporting subliminal marketing or advertising. You don't want politicians or cultural icons being able to craft online campaigns to get you to engage in behaviors which may be out of your consciousness. That is my perspective. People ask me, what is the harm if today it's just about [advertising] a trip or a car? But we know that these tools are going to be used -- if not already -- by politicians and others. I am worried that there will be technology designed to drive behaviors.

Behavioral Insider: As I read your site and commentary, it seems to me that at heart your perspective is a general critique of consumerism.

Chester: I am not saying there shouldn't be consumerism. All I want it to be is conscious. Yes, I have a critique of consumerism and online advertising -- but it's principally rooted in, let's make this all aboveboard, then the people themselves can make the decision. Give users as much control and power over the data as possible. We don't want to let the government to have access to such data or let companies have such data where possible.

Behavioral Insider: Many companies contend that even when they make opt-out obvious and accessible, users generally are not as concerned about invasiveness as journalists and critics would like to think.

Chester: I do think the companies are being disingenuous here, because they aren't being candid [with users] about what they are really doing. The public is not aware -- and once informed, I think sufficient numbers are suitably horrified. What the companies need to do is to be aboveboard and tell everyone what is being collected and there needs to be a formal federal policy requiring opt-ins or disclosures.

People do care about it. They are unaware. Look at the members of the IAB: The New York Times, Washington Post, etc. The fact is that the business model of all these publishers is in fact the collection of user data. And in the system there has been a lack of criticality on the part of news organizations to look at this in a way that would spur a serious reporting. It is about what happens to civic content. There are all kinds of questions that need to be asked during this transitional phase, which is why we are focused on BT and its effects.