Taking Liberties - and Keeping Others from Doing the Same

Last week, I took some liberties in this space that I maybe shouldn't have.

I've been thinking in terms of "taking liberties" while attending the NAI Adware Summit, here in York Harbor, Maine this week. Many privacy officers and general counsels from web marketing firms, individual sites, and portals have gathered to hammer out "The York Accords," designed to draw a line in the sand between best practices and the bad guys.

Just as there had been so much fear and loathing around cookies in 2000 and 2001, and the NAI made certain that there would be no punitive regulation foisted on our industry by outside bodies, they have taken on a similarly daunting task on Adware. I say daunting especially since so many spyware companies operate under a cloak of darkness offshore.

Last week, I mentioned that the US Congress looks to the NAI for guidance on these matters, and that that's good enough for me. When Congressional Committee members excluded cookies from the Spy Bill, mostly due to the efforts of the NAI and its more active members, this was testament to the role this association played. When any of the leading companies in our business submits comments to the FTC on matters ranging from cookies to click fraud, they work with the NAI, and when Congressional Committee staffers have questions about our industry, they call the NAI and its key members, who've forgotten more about this stuff than some of the more visible folks in our business have. (not to mention most reporters who cover our space for the consumer press).



So, why is there still any concern about cookies these days when Congress told us months ago that they were okay?

Getting back to taking liberties, one liberty I took some heat for last week was that I lumped all cookies together in my criticism of the column written that day before by the Wall Street Journal's Walter Mossberg. Mr. Mossberg had essentially called for the ban of tracking cookies while listing some praises of the kind of cookies that enable subscription models and shopping carts.

What I should have made clear before my lumping was that differentiation of cookies along the lines of "tracking" versus "non-tracking" is a game popularized by the spy sweeper programs who want to make us afraid in order to sell their software. These are both the same kind of cookies - remember - all cookies are only readable by their server. Making this distinction, in other words, is misleading.

This, along with the fact that the Wall Street Journal employs a subscription model, all manner of session targeting, regional targeting, rich media, co-registration opportunities and redirects, and behavioral targeting, many of these via third party redirects, demonstrated to me that Mr. Mossberg perhaps was unaware of just how many cookies are in play when readers of read his words - and how many go into paying his salary.

I would not have considered clarifying this here except for the overwhelming reader response that criticized my having misrepresented Mr. Mossberg, some of which you can probably read in the left hand galley right now. It's tough when you're combating such blanket misinformation. Look at it this way - what I wrote is true about all cookies. What is implied by people who call for the ban of one kind of cookie is disingenuous and misleading especially on behalf of an organization that uses them as creatively as Dow Jones. How's that?

Another liberty I took last week was the syllogism I used regarding a conspiracy theory of sorts by newspapers, along the lines of the Bottle Bill back in the 1980s. For those of you who don't recall your junior high English lessons and who are reaching for online dictionaries, a syllogism is an argument with two premises and a conclusion. I employed mine last week to be illustrative only, not because I really think newspapers are in cahoots with one another.

The basic point is this - how can someone writing from such a cookie-dependent newspaper - or any of the other newspaper journalists' similar pieces that have appeared recently - call for the ban of cookies? The wise guy in me asks, "Is it because so many newspapers have been losing money online and so many executives in traditional media, especially at newspapers, seem not to know what to do about it except complain about the momentum of interactive that seems to have left them behind while many do deals with the likes of Google, which may bleed a number of newspapers dry as they build out their local search offerings?"

Yeah - that's it.

So many influential people in our space and elsewhere regularly take what amount to potshots at our industry, mostly predicated on the fact that they're users, so they can be thought of as expert. After all, user generated content is hot, right? When you read something blatantly wrong on a Blog, that's one thing. But, with so much misinformation being generated in our industry, I keep telling people the same thing - look to the NAI, and if your company is in the business of dropping cookies, generating downloads, or otherwise monetizing users on the web, and it doesn't participate, you don't know what you're missing.

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