Behavioral Targeters Align To Head-Off Legislation, Ensure Cookie Doesn't Crumble

In a surprising and in some ways ironic development, some of the online ad industry's biggest rivals are aligning to fight a potentially bigger foe: the anti-spyware movement, which threatens to spread into some of the better marketing practices that have been fueling the industry's growth. The alliance, which was conceived by Dynamic Logic CEO Nick Nyhan, also includes two direct competitors in the behavioral targeting field -Revenue Science and Tacoda - who have worked together to develop a bundle of initiatives designed to bring the voice of legitimate online marketers into an anti-spyware debate that so far has been dominated by adware and spyware developers on one side, and consumer advocates, lawmakers and anti-spyware software concerns on the other side.

The effect, says Nyhan, "is that the reasonable middle is being left out of the dialogue." Even worse, he says, some of the legislation that has been drafted or which is expected to be could begin to encroach on some accepted industry practices that many consider to be in the consumer's best interest, as well as that of legitimate online marketers. In particular, Nyhan says the group is concerned that such basic building blocks as "cookies," simple codes that are downloaded on a user's computers when they register for Web sites, could ultimately be swept into legislation that would severely impact the ability of online marketers to research and target online users efficiently.

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The alliance also is getting out in front of a special committee of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which has been wrestling with many of the same issues, and has even gotten a considerable amount of support for an industry petition on best and worst marketing practices that has been mired in trade association policy and processing. The petition, which some refer to as an online marketer's "bill of rights," already has nearly a hundred signers, including many major publishers, marketers, interactive agencies, and research suppliers, but is said to far from ratification.

One of the new alliance's efforts includes a set of "good" and "bad" practices (see below) that are believed to be modeled on the IAB's petition. It also includes plans for a series of industry, consumer and lawmaker "outreach" programs intended to make those stakeholders aware of key issues and technical aspects of the spyware and privacy debates that ultimately could hurt consumers and marketers alike. For example, any policies, regulations or laws created that limit or prohibit the use of cookies might actually make the Internet more frustrating for consumers, causing them to constantly reenter information and re-register for sites every time they land on what is now a cookied page.

To communicate these elements, the alliance may develop a consumer advertising campaign, and will begin an ad hoc lobbying program on Capitol Hill when Congress begins its January session. Part of that lobby will be an "educational document" designed to inform legislators on technical aspects of online data that they may not understand, and which may ultimately be incorporated into new laws.

"Many people in the industry don't know the difference between a cookie and a java scripted thing, so why would lawmakers or consumers," says Nyhan. "And frankly, why should they. But what they should know, is what is good and what is bad from a consumer's point of view."

The initiative will also tackle some industrial issues, such as the growing influence of anti-spyware software developers, such as Norton and Symantec, which often block or strip out benign codes that help consumers navigate sites, and which give marketers valuable data that does not explicitly violate their personal privacy.

In another industry outreach initiative, members of the alliance will participate in a special forum, which will be held by the Advertising Research Foundation on Dec. 2 to educate industry players on the ramifications of potential legislation on research practices.

"There's a whole lot of swirl going around on the Hill on this issue. It started with adware and spyware, but a lot of other issues are getting pulled into it," says Nick Johnson, senior vice president of business development and general manager of account strategy at Revenue Science. "It's important that we put a stake in the ground to make sure there is some sort of delineation between what good practices and bad practices are, because there are good reasons for using cookie-ing from a consumer point of view. And it's being left out of the debate."

Johnson demurred on the subject of Revenue Science's alliance with Tacoda on the subject, but Tacoda chief Dave Morgan says it is simply a matter of pragmatism.

"I think the issues of competitiveness in the field and how our companies operate are overblown and being fueled by the pundits. The reality is that we have a lot in common and a lot at stake and this is something we need to work together on," he explains.

GOOD PRACTICES
Publisher acceptance:
Publishers have the right to protect their users experience and not have their sites manipulated or over-taken by content that they do not approve of conceptually.
Good user experience through cookies:
Cookies can enhance the user experience in ways including: through controls for log-in, storing personal preferences, shopping cart functionality, frequency controls on advertising, and ad relevancy. Accompanying privacy policies must be easy to find and understand, for third party cookies this means making an accurate P3P statement.
Ad / Site tracking:
Data to determine who was exposed to specific web pages, ads, emails, and frequency of exposure enables publishers and advertisers to know how their audience is experiencing the content and allows publishers to enhance the user-experience, by enabling targeting, relevancy, ad frequency controls, and measurement.
Respectful data collection:
A site's initial collection of personal information, including email or name, should be done only with user consent and a clear opt-in/out policy.

BAD PRACTICES
Blind downloads:
Cloaking software in other downloads violates consumer trust and makes it difficult for consumers to understand the purpose and impact of those decisions.
Difficult to uninstall:
Consumers should have robust choice in managing the software installed on their computers and uninstall methods should not be obscured or disabled. Software that attempts to evade consumer choice is unacceptable.
Browser manipulation:
Altering the customary operations and manipulating the default settings of a browser so the user cannot regain control is a violation of consumer trust.
Keystroke tracking:
The practice of surreptitiously monitoring consumer's keystrokes for the purposes of obtaining passwords or identification is an egregious violation of consumer trust.
Unclear origin of ads:
Designing delivery systems to hide or obscure the source of an ad, web page, or email undermines consumer trust because it makes it difficult to identify the perpetrator of abusive practices.

Source: The Anti-Spyware Initiative.

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