Let's Not Miss the Point of Consumer Cookie Deletion

Web research company InsightExpress announced that while plenty of consumers think that they delete cookies from their computers monthly, perhaps only about a third of those consumers actually succeed in doing so.

"The deletion of cookies is greatly exaggerated" read the report, which will be released between the parties at Ad:Tech San Francisco next week. I have to admit, when I initially heard the JupiterResearch numbers, I thought of the Immaculate Conception.

If you ask Catholics if they know what the Immaculate Conception is, almost 100 percent of them will tell you that they do. Perhaps half of them will think it's the conception of Jesus though, which is incorrect, grasshopper. So, do they really know, just because they think they know?

Of course they don't. This is what is reflected by consumers who think they know what their spyware-sweeping programs can do. In other words, they don't know what they think they know.

But, JupiterResearch analyst Eric Peterson was perfectly right when he told my colleague, Wendy Davis, "The issue is that cookie deletion is happening. How often it's happening becomes somewhat academic."



Why are consumers deleting their cookies? Because they don't trust what those cookies are doing on their hard drives. Other Spin columnists have treated this as well. I think we the industry would be well served to absorb the fact that, to most savvy consumers, our industry is "predatory," as Jeff Einstein wrote earlier this week.

I was thinking about Einstein's piece and the whole being-in-a-predatory-industry thing earlier today (does that make me a predator?) when this bon mot hit the AP Wire - "Google Launches Personal History Feature." It seems that Google is "experimenting" with a feature that enables users - or others who have users' log-in information - to view every search they'd conducted, as well as their results, and which site that user visited. Any Gmail user already has the log-ins they need to create an account, and Google will house all the information on their secure servers.

Did seeing this headline make any of you do what I did? I emitted an audible "whoa" when I read this, because all the privacy experts who were upset with Google's Gmail product when it was launched 13 months ago suddenly seem to have their concerns validated. Now, someone will have access to not just your e-mail traffic and any Web pages you viewed, but also to whatever search you'd conducted.

Think that doesn't matter? Because of the Patriot Act, which will almost surely be renewed in September, this means that the U.S. Government can gain access to any and all of this information whenever they want it, with or without probable cause. That, however, matters less than the persistent consumer impression that there is something sinister going on here. Anyone who has seen Dave Chappell's hilarious skit on this on Comedy Central is likely to agree.

Consumers are asking themselves, "Why do people behind the Web have to follow Web users? Other media don't do this, do they? If they do, it doesn't affect me." Why do you think that so many consumers think they are deleting their cookies - it's because they WANT to delete their cookies. Consumers want more transparency. Privacy to them is less about sharing their personally identifiable information (PII) and shopping habits - it's more about knowing who has it and when, as well as what's in it for them.

The least-initiated consumer still provides all kinds of PII to his or her local grocery store or drug store so they can reap their "membership savings." The transparency of this quid pro quo makes the ongoing transaction pretty simple. The fact that the consumers benefit by saving money is what, of course, makes it desirable to most of them.

So, what should Web marketers do to make their own information gathering seem more like this transaction to consumers? Why not label each cookie with something a bit easier to understand - like a Web site that consumers can go to and read a short, easy-to-understand privacy statement that says something like "our cookies gather no personally identifiable information. They're used only for counting purposes and to gather other information such as session time, etc...." This way, the really smart consumers will be able to actually regard the cookies on their hard drives and much of the fear involved with this would dissipate.

That is, it would unless the cookies in question aren't really as harmless as we say they are. If what we do is really harmless to consumers, then why does it remain a problem? We don't need a major public education program. We need transparency.

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