If It Bends, It's Privacy

My wife and I are big fans of the" Law & Order" franchises -- those erstwhile crime dramas on NBC and most cable networks that feature, as creator Dick Wolf puts it, "A universe of characters."  We've noticed, through studied observation, that there are six or seven common, recurring themes to the "Law & Order" plotlines.  One of these is, "The Internet is evil." (Another is, "Never screw with the Russian mob.") In an early episode of "Law & Order: SVU," Stabler is explaining to his young teenage daughter why he reads her email.  "Now they're coming in through there," he says of the creeps and perverts he brings to justice, as he points to the computer screen.

"Law & Order"'s demonization of the Internet (and the Russian mob) seems to strike a chord with much or the public.  In a real-life episode of law (if not order),  New York state assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky has recently proposed a law that would make it a crime for Internet advertisers to use personal information about consumers to direct advertising to them. I find this sort of thing troubling on a lot of levels, so let me try and sort out the reasons why.

Let's say you are a tall, dashing, smartly dressed Chief Research Officer at a major Internet audience measurement company, and you walk into Nordstrom's. A sales clerk you recognize comes up to you and says, "Hey, your wife's birthday is coming up in a few weeks, and we just got in those sweaters she likes.  Should I put a couple of them away for you in her size and color?"  Now let me ask you.  Does this hypothetical Chief Research Officer perceive this to be: (a) an egregious violation of his privacy, causing him to immediately rush home and write his state assemblyman; or (b) another example of Nordstrom's world-class customer service?

If you answered (b), then you're tracking with me so far.

So how come if this exact same thing happens on the other side of the screen, it stops being outstanding customer service and turns into a violation of privacy?

Now here's the thing.  What exactly IS privacy? While I'm disinclined to answer -- I'm still trying to define engagement from two weeks ago -- I do know that the definition is fluid, and that privacy means something entirely different to young people who have grown up online, than it does to those of us old enough to remember VHS.  You can go to Facebook, "Friend" everyone under 25 in your office, and immediately see pictures of all of them in various states of drunkenness (and if they've posted pictures from Burning Man, chances are that isn't drunk you're looking at, it's something more... ecstatic.)

And finally there's this.  If a consumer spends $75 a month with a major cable MSO for cable TV and Internet access, and pays with a Visa, why do we assume that the MSO has no title to that data?  Granted the credit card number is the property of the consumer (and Visa and the issuing bank), but the rest of the data in that transaction, it seems to me, is rightly jointly owned by consumer and provider.  If the MSO were to profile the viewing of subscribing households and then target direct mail inserts in their bills according to these profiles, that doesn't seem to cross this imaginary privacy line.  But if the same company does essentially the same thing, targeting the same consumers with the same data but doing it online, the hair on the backs of some people's necks seems to stand straight up.  Is the Russian mob somehow taking a piece of the behavioral targeting business?  Or is there some fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the Internet that is either contributing to, or an outgrowth of, demonization of the medium?

There is a digital divide, but I don't think the divide falls along economic lines; it may be more generational than anything else.  There are those that get it, and those that don't.  To the analogs, the idea of migration of our collective lives online -- the very concept of the virtual agora -- is, a priori, frightening.  To the digerati, this migration isn't happening fast enough.  But privacy is not a casualty of the virtual agora, because as the younger digerati know, privacy is elastic.

I believe that it is incumbent upon Internet marketer -- and researchers, because the lines between research and targeting are continuing to blur -- to push the limits of data mining and data base integration and artificial intelligence, in the interest of deploying information technology to meet the needs of people. At the same time, it is incumbent upon us to zealously guard the privacy of the consumers whose lives we touch, even tangentially.  I do not believe these two goals are paradoxical.

If Big Brother barges into your home at midnight and takes you away because someone doesn't like the books you've been reading, that's an invasion of your privacy (and way worse.)  But if the ads you see on Yahoo are increasingly relevant to your life, that's not an invasion of privacy.  That's just the digital version of that nice lady at Nordstrom's. Let's not confuse the two.



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