Privacy from Marketers: Why Is That Such an Impossible Idea?

 The chief technical officer of a software company wrote an “Open letter to advertisers in the NRA era” that appeared on Re/Code over the weekend. An OptiMine executive Rob Cooley had some common sense concerns about privacy and cookies and all the following-you-around stuff that some consumers are a lot more worried about that I think is reflected in every day media reports.

Cooley seems to sense that, too. “Consumers are increasingly concerned that their every click is being dissected and their online lives exposed,” he wrote. “Increased worry for their privacy is beginning to negatively affect consumer behaviors and buying decisions. In fact, 35% of consumers in a recent TRUSTe and eMarketer survey have gone so far as to avoid doing business with certain brands due to privacy concerns.”



You can count me in that percentage, and beyond that, I know at least a couple dozen neighbors and associates who won’t use Facebook or YouTube for fear of disclosing too much about themselves, or comment on Web sites that ask you to leave your comments via their Facebook account.

It seems to me that the real, tangible benefits and entertainment involved with using streaming video is diminished by the inevitability that one thing leads to another.

For younger users, as I’m told repeatedly, this tracking doesn’t freak them out, but, as I like to point out, for millions of users, with probably hundreds of billions of dollars, the intrusiveness of online is not a selling feature. The real world is not made up exclusively of college graduates who are under 30, and that group is also really, really badly represented among the people who make laws.

Cooley says in his open letter that the online ad industry ought to become more transparent about telling users how they are being watched, and while I don’t think he says it, I will: Those privacy disclosures everyone is asked to sign are so obviously and deliberately impossible that the first association many consumers have with online data collecting is extraordinarily negative—as if the contract to make a purchase was entirely written in small print.

That has to change in such fundamental ways I’m not sure it can be done without good consultations with the end users. I’m just assuming you have been at industry conferences and been on the receiving end of an ecstatic report about data mining and thought to yourself: “Wow, if the general public heard this speech, they’d be ready to throw their smartphone into the river.” What to do about that feeling? 

I’m afraid, for many users, the cleverness or utility of online video is more than offset by those concerns. Conventional television is wildly inefficient and online video and targeted advertising makes that abundantly evident, but the premise of online advertising seems faulty, too. As a consumer, I’ve only agreed to see the video I’m watching, not to hand over my entire life for the sake of your commercial message.

As long as that is the proposition, millions of people will refuse to play the game--I routinely lie online--and as the drumbeat of NSA revelations gets louder, more will start thinking about it. As Cooley’s open letter states, the ad industry verily invites government regulation if it does nothing much to create a statement of good intentions the public can see or read, and believe.

Speaking specifically about tracking, Cooley puts the challenge out there pretty plainly: The business should “ensure that targeting is actually driving value for consumers, and not perpetuating harm.” Those are two wildly divergent perceptions—and that’s proof to me there’s a huge problem to be solved.

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