November 6, 2007
The Federal Trade Commission is holding public meetings about behavioral tracking programs, a pillar of personalized advertising. In the words of Eileen Harrington, speaking for the FTC and quoted in Louise Story's reports (*)(**)(***), "advertising has changed dramatically". Indeed the ambitions of Facebook, Google and Verizon, to mention a few names, have recently reached maturity in this domain and economic stakes run in the billions. The risks to privacy are in proportion. As we innocently browse the Internet, may companies use our every click to build a profile whose depth is hard to fathom? "The current 'don't ask, don't tell' in online tracking and profiling has to end", says Jon Leibowitz for the FTC to sum up the task ahead.
Encouraged by the advertising industry, naive observers may think privacy advocates exaggerate the threat since tracking is normally anonymous. Wiser people will remember that AOL's reputation got badly damaged last year when it appeared one can often identify anonymous profiles based from tracking online searches.
One solution put forward by some consumer advocacy groups is to set up a do-not-track registry. The fact is the FTC has had a resounding success with its do-not-call registry, which shields consumers who so desire from unsollicited marketing calls. To extend this initiative to the Internet is only natural. That AOL is volunteering to set up such a list for its users may be seen as confirming the reasonableness of the measure. Beware reasonable solutions. They must be examined with the same scepticism as their more outlandish brethren.
The flaw is in evidence. If I put my phone number on a do-not-call list and a company gives me a marketing call, I can detect the breach and identify the culprit at once. A do-not-track registry offers no such guarantee for it bears on hidden means rather than on visible effect. What if I receive an ad for a Honda after having browsed ford.com? It could be pure happenstance or even some legal personalized advertising. For example a Honda dealer may have bought my profile from a marketing database company and be in partnership with the site I am currently visiting and to which I have told who I am. Given such ambiguous evidence, can one expect the FTC to go after advertisers backed with good legal teams, let alone win?
The reader may forgive me if I see this idea as a clever framing of the debate by marketing companies, a sop for Cerberus to placate "the absolutism of organizations like the EPIC, the EFF, and the ACLU" as Mark Williams calls it (****). Since online tracking is mostly done through cookies, advertisers must already regard as a lost cause the minority who turn off this feature or request their browsers to delete cookies automatically after each session. It is not hard to imagine those suspicious souls to be the only ones who will bother entering their names into an ineffective registry. At no cost to them then, advertisers will claim the moral high ground and attack their real target unfettered.
When the ground is not level, the middle ground is but a slippery slope. Already MySpace is snubbing its nose at the FTC altogether and rolling out its plans as reported by Matthew Garrahan and Kevin Allison (*****). A real right to privacy must be recognized. But who said personalized advertising must suffer? With ePrio's technology, there is no need to trade-off economic growth against privacy.
- (*) ........... Online Marketers Joining Internet Privacy Efforts, by Louise Story (New York Times) - October 31, 2007
- (**) ........ F.T.C. to Review Online Ads and Privacy, by Louise Story (New York Times) - November 1, 2007
- (***) ...... F.T.C. Takes a Look At Web Marketing, by Louise Story (New York Times) - November 2, 2007
- (****) ... The Talk of the Town: You, by Mark Williams (Technology Review) - November/December, 2007
- (*****) . MySpace reveals 'targeted ads', by Matthew Garrahan and Kevin Allison (Financial Times) - November 5, 2007