First Step in Defending Cookies is Refuting Disinformation

On Friday, Mark Naples covered a piece written by The Wall Street Journal's Walter Mossberg that likened cookies to spyware. Mossberg's article contains what I would consider to be mischaracterizations of how marketers and online publishers use cookies at best, and inaccurate facts at worst.

For one, Mossberg's article characterizes cookies as non-permission based when he asks that companies that make use of cookies "go straight." He suggests that companies that use cookies "should ask a user's permission to install the cookies, pointing out whatever user benefits they believe the cookies provide." A quick check of The Wall Street Journal's privacy policy and separate cookie disclosure statement, linked from the home page, shows that the use of cookies is indeed disclosed and several benefits are explained as well.

The fact is that ad servers that make use of cookies have gone well out of their way to abide by the rules. They've deliberately steered clear of linking cookies to Personally Identifiable Information (PII) in the wake of the controversies of the past, and they've offered consumers the ability to opt out of the program on their Web sites. I can't think of a reputable site that makes use of cookies and doesn't disclose how they are used.



Mossberg also uses what I would consider to be a grossly unfair analogy for cookie tracking, likening cookie-based systems to a television that tracks what consumers watch and reports the data back to marketing companies. In reality, advertising-side ad serving systems concern themselves not with what content is consumed, but with which ads are displayed where, to which anonymous users, and whether or not a sale or a request for more information was logged.

As industry insiders, we know how these systems work and what is done with them. And we know that characterizations like Mossberg's are inaccurate representations. But the average consumer doesn't know what we know, and the fear of intrusion by marketing folks is understandable. Mark Naples on Friday suggested that perhaps there was an agenda behind Mossberg's piece. I'd like to suggest that there might be other forces at work.

There are companies out there who would like nothing better than to instill a culture of paranoia when it comes to online marketing. Companies that produce anti-spyware software label the tracking of cookies an act of spyware in part because labeling cookies as a threat gives a consumer yet another reason to buy anti-spyware software. And the software that can identify the most potential threats is the software that usually gets the highest marks from consumers who want their PCs protected. That much is simple.

What isn't simple is how the online marketing industry should respond to a growing number of consumers who are learning to hate cookies. My informal conversations with other industry professionals have yielded suggestions ranging from educational campaigns to higher-profile disclosures to ignoring the problem altogether. Disagreement about how to handle the problem may lead to inaction or the inability to get traction in dealing with it.

One thing that we can get going on in the meantime is to correct the Mossbergs of the world when they mischaracterize cookie tracking. Disinformation doesn't do anybody any good. So when you see articles published that don't characterize our use of cookies well, or contain factual errors, it would help all of us to respond to them in a way that corrects the inaccuracies.

Write letters to the editor. Post your opinion to blogs. Submit a piece to your favorite industry trade magazine or Web site for publication. But whatever you do, don't let disinformation slide. Articles like Mossberg's, when left unchallenged, have this nasty way of providing ammunition for those perpetuating the culture of paranoia in the ensuing discussions about the issue. You don't have to tackle the entire problem right now, but you could help to make sure that writers get their facts straight, so that any debate on the issue isn't tainted by incorrect facts.

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