For the most part -- unlike some of his peers in the BT industry -- Bill Gossman, CEO, Revenue Science, is not worrying about a backlash over privacy and behavioral tracking. He feels the industry already does a good job of covering privacy concerns and giving consumers the tools for opting out of whatever offends them online. If education is needed, it is more about how these technologies keep offers and messaging relevant for consumers, he argues.
Behavioral Insider: Is there an opt-out function for Revenue Science's network?
Bill Gossman: Revenue Science belongs to and conforms to the standards of the Network Advertising Initiative, which enables consumers to opt out of having their behavior tracked by our technology. They can obtain an "opt-out cookie" to prevent any data from being associated with their browser. In addition, we provide complete instructions on how to opt out of Revenue Science's network advertising services.
BI: Is it necessary to educate consumers further about anonymous tracking, online cookies, and precisely what BT does? Or is it asking too much for consumers and the industry?
Gossman: It is necessary for interested consumers to be able to find accurate information about all of these issues. Unfortunately, a lot of the information that is put out by various sources is not accurate or does not tell the whole story. We saw this with the cookie debate. It's not really fair to ask consumers to wade through all of the different sources, but there's no easy solution. There's always going to be a certain percentage of concerned consumers who will take the time to learn about the issues. But that's a small group. For the vast majority who want a simple answer, the industry has done the right thing.
What do consumers need to know? First, privacy is a delicate issue in all forms of business -- not just online. The security measures needed -- and implemented by -- online advertising and media companies are really no different. It's just that there is higher visibility to people, so concerns are greater. The reality is, advertisers want to message to large groups of people who have exhibited enough qualifying behaviors to indicate interest in a product category or brand. They are not interested in detailed information on each one of those individuals. In addition, while recent discussion about BT have focused on consumer privacy, it's important not to forget the other half of the equation: relevancy. Consumers want their privacy protected, and a relevant online experience. We never collect personally identifiable information, so people benefit from more relevant content while remaining completely anonymous.
We not only have to communicate how consumers' privacy is being protected, but the benefits that they are getting from BT, which will only increase as BT continues to become a more integral part of the economics of online media.
BI: Does the BT industry need some standardized way of dealing with consumer privacy concerns? A consistent opt-out process?
Gossman: The industry already has that through NAI: consumers can opt out of all member advertising networks. However, this prospect is very different from a national "do-not-call" registry for telemarketing, and everyone must be wary of the potential consequences. Online media is a very different prospect than print media, and those differences are increasing with the proliferation of different channels like Web, mobile, etc. The fundamental economics are very different. More and more, advertisers will demand the ability to connect with large groups of target audiences, regardless of where they are, and publishers will have to provide this capability, or they will have to start charging for media access. Therefore BT is key to ensuring that media remains free -- or largely subsidized by advertising. We believe strongly in that vision and, when we have done consumer surveys, they have consistently said that they prefer relevant advertising and prefer to receive targeted ads [rather] than [having] to pay for media.
BI: Dave Morgan of Tacoda has warned that unless the industry gets proactive about privacy, the issue could 'blow up' in their faces. Do you agree?
Gossman: Privacy has to be taken seriously, but I do not see a 'blow-up' in the offing. Consumers understand the bargain of subsidized media, want relevant advertising and have lived with cookies since the inception of the Internet. Further, people like Yahoo, MSN, Amazon, Ebay, AOL and many, many other publishers have adopted industry standards and are serving consumers every day.
Further, we think that 'proper handling' does not mean forcing consumers to make an opt-out choice of every ad they see on a page. Nor does it mean weakening the sophistication of the technology. Part of BT is delivering a better online experience to people and ensuring that media remains free. What's most important to avoid a 'blow-up' is to do the right thing. We comply with the security certifications of the NAI and eTrust and we also have a security task force in place. To prevent information from being paired with personally identifiable information, Revenue Science adds a layer of abstraction by using a Revenue Science identifier in third-party cookies. It is virtually impossible for us to link surfing behavior to personally identifiable information at Revenue Science.
BI: Where are consumers on this issue?
Gossman: A 2006 study sponsored by Revenue Science and conducted by the Ponemon Institute, a research institute dedicated to privacy management practices in business and government, showed that people are becoming more comfortable with behavioral targeting because it improves their online experience. Sixty-three percent said that Internet marketers should 'always' understand their interests prior to sending them advertising, and 55% stated that online ads of interest to them 'improves' or 'greatly improves' their overall online experience.
BI: And where are the politicians on this issue? Any threat of legislation?
Gossman: In 2006 the Network Advertising Initiative met with the FCC after the last round of hearings, and the FCC said they were quite satisfied with the steps taken by Revenue Science and other NAI members to protect user privacy. Since 2000, the concerns of the FCC and all mainstream privacy groups have been addressed by the NAI. In short, good actors who serve consumers will thrive, and bad actors who do not protect data or use spyware will fail.