I think publishers need to be more upfront when they require registration data from consumers. Most privacy policies do make mention of the reasons why they require ZIP codes, demographic information, and other data points from consumers, but that information tends to be buried within privacy statements and legalese. Perhaps a home page link ("Why This Site Requires Registration") could help consumers understand the need for publishers to underwrite their content through targeted advertising.
Reading some of the online petitions circulating this past week, I noticed that there seem to be two main reasons why consumers dislike registration:
At a minimum, I think it's certainly time to address the concerns of the folks described in No. 2 by being a bit more upfront with why publishers need certain data points from their regular users. To address the people who fall into the first category, perhaps it's time to examine the notion of aggregated registration, in which one company or entity could handle the one-time registration for a number of content Web sites. This seems to be an easy play for many newspaper networks or an opportunity for a specialized company.
Doing nothing, however, will lead more consumers to be suspicious of publisher motives. Those who are already suspicious are either registering with false information or using pooled log-ins from BugMeNot and similar sites. If sites like BugMeNot can emerge without help from publishing companies, there must be enough concern out there to merit something like an aggregated registration process, such that a single consumer can register for several sites in one shot.
The hard-core privacy activists will always rail against registration, but I think the average consumer can come to understand why registration is important to publishers. Smart companies are using solutions like those offered from eMeta for access control, and such solutions can be tailored to take advantage of deep links that propagate throughout the Web, while simultaneously ensuring more consumers do eventually register.
Through a combination of transparency, technology, and compromise, I think we can tweak registration such that it will continue to work for publishers for quite some time.