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My Thoughts on Online Privacy

Spy-vs-spy
Anyone that has followed me on Twitter knows that I have been a staunch defender of online privacy rights and outspoken against third-party data sharing practices of our industry. The reasons are twofold: one personal, one business.

I’m compelled to finally write a post on privacy after reading Esther Dyson’s comments on it. It’s a worthy read. I have tremendous respect for Ms. Dyson but I’m afraid she is falling into the opinion trap of framing her argument and solutions about “free content or not.” Since she’s speaking to me, an online marketer – I feel obliged to add my point of view.

Dyson says “I don’t know what privacy is.” * Here are my personal feelings on what privacy is online using an offline example that informed this opinion over many years.

Privacy:

I walk into a store understanding that the store has the right to videotape my every move. I understand I am a customer of the store the second I walk in.  I’m also fine with the store using whatever information they can glean from the tape to make the store a better experience, make it safer or just to sell more.

However, I don’t believe the store has the right to broadcast that video of me to whomever they please or make it publicly available for sale or inform a stranger that I am in that very location at that very moment.

In fact they don’t without consent.  Look at the back of any ticket to an event and you will see this legal language:

“You consent to use your image, likeness, actions and statements in connection with any live or recorded audio photograph or other transmission of or publication of the event.”

I’m not a lawyer however issues of consensual actions have many laws around them and many are framed around at what level does consent become ineffective. For me it is simple, once websites transfer online tracking data to a third party we cross that line where our personal consent is effective.

Business:

All this data is being collected for use with targeting display ads but display ads still suck. That’s right, as an industry we’re causing a maelstrom yet we all we’re doing is bringing our CTR up from .05 to .15 (if we’re lucky). We’re not using this information in a way that’s truly making the web a more relevant, helpful, interesting, useful, exciting place for people. If we were, hardly anyone would care. The tradeoff would be worth it - just as it is when you step inside your favorite stadium.

Liz Gannes at GigaOm framed Dyson’s comments as a marketing problem. I would rephrase it and say Marketers are the problem.

“A wild debate is on about websites using "tracking tools" to "spy" on American Internet users. Don't fall for it. The controversy is led by activists who want to obstruct essential Internet technologies and return the U.S. to a world of limited consumer choice in news, entertainment, products and services.”

This is Randall Rothenberg, leader of the IAB talking. When you have industry trade groups that discount the power of the technology and belittle or ignore the fears of everyday people you are adding fuel to the fire of those that say online can’t get it’s act together. You’re also not recalling the first two rules of fight club.

If anyone thinks the threat of privacy regulation sending us back to a world of limited choice on the web is going to be effective strategy then they haven't a clue of what the public thinks about the web. No one is going to be scared that the Internet will stop working one day. Most people remember it worked just fine before online advertising. I continue to quote Seth Godin who said it best:

"the Net is different. It wasn't invented by business people, and it doesn't exist to help your company make money.”

Technology:

What I loved about Dyson’s comments was that she was looking for a technological solution. At Yieldbot we’ve made a conscious decision to build a technology that can provide realtime and deep level targeting without the need for third party cookies. It is, as it is becoming called in the industry “pixelless targeting.” Another company (not a scrappy startup like us), Akamai has built its targeting technology in this manner. I'm certain this is the future.

As an industry we have been lazy – cookies and pixels are easy to grab easy to store and easy to match. This is easy money for now - but it is not forward thinking. If we challenge ourselves to come up with new ways of targeting and build new technologies I believe we can not only eliminate the issues with privacy all together but we can build better systems that actually deliver the relevance, help, interest, use and excitement that people would have traded their information for in the first place. Except, we’ll allow them to keep it.

Next Steps:

Industry self-regulation is wrongheaded. Not only will enforcement be impossible but it will end up making the industry look worse than it does now a year or two down the road. Also, by delaying the industry gives Google more and more power over the control of data and privacy and thus more ownership over the issue. That's probably not in the best interest of anyone but Google.

Legislation is inevitable. Now is the time to work together with academics and lawmakers to craft laws. This way everyone will know the rules of the game going forward and as an industry we can push with the velocity needed to keep up with our technology at the same pace our audience advances their use of it. Most importantly, we can invest in making sure the online industry builds into something that can scale and become the dominant advertising and communication marketplace over the next 25 years. 

*In all fairness to Ms Dyson I do not know the context of the quote but her sharing her own definitions about privacy would really help push this debate further and I hope she does it or someone can direct me to her previous thoughts on the matter.

 

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Comments

You make some excellent points, and agree that legislation is surely necessary to prevent private data being mis-used.

However, I think we need to realise that handing over our personal data actually benefits consumers and society as a whole.

I noticed a few comments on your earlier post entitled 'The Web is Not an Ad Supported Medium', arguing that there would be no search or email or facebook without the advertising made possible from our personal data.

In an article I wrote exploring the implications of privacy, I show how being too private ultimately leads to higher prices of consumer goods for everyone:

http://www.calculatemarketing.com/blog/discussion/google-ssl-page-how-privacy-leads-to-higher-prices/

In part I agree with Ms Dyson's comments that privacy is a marketing and perhaps an education problem, and how society's view seems to be that anyone found using personal data for commercial gain is labelled a villain.

But if you ask anyone whether they'll be happy to keep their personal data to themselves and make do with poor email, poor search, poor website experiences and higher prices of goods and services, I think most would realise the wider benefits of handing over their personal data.

Don't get me wrong, I agree that something needs to be done to safeguard personal data mis-use, but whatever that is needs to ensure that the internet can continue to flourish.

Cheers for an interesting read!

Alan

Great article.

I'd also urge you to read a statement submitted to a House committee a few days ago during a hearing on the privacy implications of cloud computing. One argument in particular is worth noting:

Various privacy advocacy groups have argued that a failure to amend current online privacy laws essentially imposes a "tax" on the American public -- (1) users will start to pay for encryption, and/or (2) the quality of cloud services (like Gmail) will decline dramatically due to the decrease in ad revenue.

You can read the statement here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/37952289/ECPA-Statement-House-Judiciary-Subcommittee-on-the-Constitution-Civil-Rights-and-Civil-Liberties

Links to other party statements are here: http://judiciary.house.gov/hearings/hear_100923.html

Self regulation has and will never work as a whole because of different world views. We protect what we value. If someone works against something that I value than we already have a conflict. We can establish self-regulation among people who value internet privacy and it will work great in within this group. But outside of it it will be a mess because people are making a lot of money with it.

Internet privacy is the desire or mandate of personal privacy with respect to transactions or transmission of data via the Internet. It involves the exercise of control over the type or amount of information that persons reveal about themselves on the Internet and who may access such information. The term is often understood to mean universal Internet privacy, i.e. every user of the Internet possessing Internet privacy. search engine marketing

I dont think there is any privacy if you do not use privacy features on the web.
Specially when you use social networking sites, you must have settings that could save your private and confidential data from being viewed and copied.

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