BBB Privacy Punishment Could Help, Not Harm, Etsy And Others

On the face of it, yesterday’s announcement by the Better Business Bureau that Etsy, Imgur,, and 247 Sports will increase the level of data collection transparency is a win.

On every page where third parties collect data for use in behavioral targeting, these companies will also display a “clear, meaningful and prominent link” explaining more and allowing users to opt out. “That link,” says Wendy Davis, who reported the story for our sister publication The Daily Online Examiner, “is supposed to appear underneath text like ‘Interest-based ads,’ ‘About our ads,’ ‘AdChoices,’ or ‘Why did I get this ad?’”

As I said, on the face of it, a win. Who doesn’t want greater control over how their data is collected and used? According to the Pew Research Center, 68% of Internet users “disapprove of search engines and websites tracking their online behavior for the purpose of ad targeting.” No doubt every one of those people -- around 190 million in the United States, if you do the math -- will be chomping at the bit to click through and opt out.



Or will they? In 2014, fewer than 5 million people visited the Network Advertising Initiative’s centralized opt-out page. From this year’s NAI report, it’s unclear how many of those people subsequently opted out.

These results are indicative of a long-standing disconnect between what consumers say they want, privacy-wise, and what they’re actually willing to do for it. Back in 2008, I wrote an article called “Peeing Into The Privacy Wind," in which I quoted TACODA founder Dave Morgan: “Early on, when we were first developing behavioral targeting at TACODA, we knew that tracking cookies had the potential to make some folks uncomfortable... We launched an aggressive opt-out program for those who didn't want our cookies on their browsers. Interestingly, over the year, even thought we launched program after higher profile program to promote the opt-out, only a relatively few folks ever chose to do so.”

Let’s face it: we barely click on ads. How likely are we to click on the disclaimer associated with the ad?

It may even be the case that the “enhanced privacy notices” these companies agreed to do more good than harm. They are not, after all, that dissimilar to the disclaimers required on ads for pharmaceuticals -- and, according to a 2013 study, pharmaceutical disclaimers may actually enhance sales: “[V]iewers who saw commercials that included listings of side effects--even scary ones, like blindness--shied away from the products in question at first,” writes Tracy Stanton on FiercePharma. “But a few days later, they were likely to buy more of the products than were viewers who saw commercials that omitted potential adverse effects… In fact, the warning became a positive influence--an indicator of the company's honesty and trustworthiness.”

I applaud the BBB for fighting the good fight to enforce self-regulation in the industry. Consumers certainly deserve the ability to choose whether or not they want their behavior to be tracked. But shouldn’t we, as Internet users, own just a teensy bit of the responsibility to actually take action when the choice is presented to us?

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