Do You Know Where Your Cookie Is?

Posted on Thursday, April 28th, 2011 by Print This Post Print This Post

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There’s been a lot of talk about Privacy on the Internet lately as the McCain-Kerry Privacy Bill makes its way through the House. One of the main points of discussion has centered around not what the bill contains, but what wasn’t in the bill – “Do Not Track” legislation similar to the National Do Not Call Registry. Members of the house familiar with the bill’s development have said that “Do Not Track” is not off the table, simply set aside as they work with Industry leaders to develop a plan that allows for the highest level of personal privacy on the web while not stifling commerce & innovation. “If implemented carelessly, solutions to prevent tracking could have the unintended consequence of diminishing the online experience for users and stifling the growth of online publishing without meaningfully improving user privacy.” Transparency and Choice: Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Online World. Google White Paper:  http://www.w3.org/2011/track-privacy/papers/Google.pdf Consumers have had the ability to turn off first or third party cookies for some time.  Most browsers even include the option to block cookies from specific websites only.  And if you prefer an even further level of protection, you can enable a pop-up window on some browsers to warn you any time a site wishes to cookie you.  These settings are there and available to the general public, though, for most people, enabling them is similar to asking someone, back before “Do Not Call,” to gather together all the contact numbers of the telemarketing agencies and call them individually to ask to be taken off their lists – a time consuming and complicated task that most people don’t have the time or will to tackle. There has been an option floating around of including an Opt Out button on individual ads where, similar to opting out of email marketing, a user could click on an opt out link within an ad and have that advertiser blocked from showing for them.  Win-win situation – the user gets more targeted ads and companies don’t pay for unwanted impressions.  This would require the browsers, ad platforms and retargeting companies to work together to develop the technology, but it’s not impossible. Facebook has a version of this in their interface where you can choose to close/decline an ad.  The prompt then asks you to choose why you are declining the ad – was it offensive, not relevant, etc. This allows Facebook to continue to gather more information on you (and your likes & dislikes) and the advertiser to continue to hone their ad delivery system.  But ad delivery & cookies are just prominent symptoms of the problem, not the cause. The problem lies in what information is being collected and how that information is being used.  For example, shortly after my son was born, I began receiving ads in the mail for all types of baby products, coupons, magazines, you name it.  At first I wondered if the hospital had passed along my information to a marketing company, but then realized, since the marketing was all addressed to my maiden name and was being forwarded from a previous address, that the only place this information could have come from was my OB.  This felt like such a violation.  This woman, who had seen me through one of the most intense and personal times in my life, had a side business selling patients’ information to marketers. The same issue exists on the web.  I don’t mind the Pottery Barn or J.Crew having my information, even knowing what products I’ve searched for and not bought (this can be a big plus if they remarket to me with an incentive or notice of a sale).  I mind when they use that information to make money off of me without my knowledge.  This is what lies at the heart of the privacy discussion and the answer, along with stronger consumer protections, is more transparency.  If I know a website is going to use my information and I have access to what is being collected & shared, I can make informed decisions about when & where I will allow that information to be used. As we know, blocking everything isn’t the answer unless we want the entire web to live behind one giant paywall.  Consumers have been trained to expect certain things for free on the internet – news, search engines, blogs, television shows, etc. Many of these sites require a great deal of technology & infrastructure to deliver the services we’ve come to rely on, and can’t survive without some means of generating income.  We’ve seen this tug of war play out first with music and television with the rise of music sharing sites and DVRs, and most recently with news organizations like the New York Times.  Websites need to continue generating advertising revenue. “To ask a user to make a decision about tracking without incorporating both sides of the equation—the value they get from advertising supported content as well as their concerns about tracking—would put at risk aspects of the online experience that millions of users have come to expect and value.” Transparency and Choice: Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Online World. Google White Paper: http://www.w3.org/2011/track-privacy/papers/Google.pdf Industry leaders are meeting this week (April 28th & 29th) at Princeton University for the W3C Workshop to discuss options.  More info in the World Wide Web Consortium Workshop on Web Tracking and User Privacy can be found here. It’ll be interesting to see what new ideas come out of this meeting & how receptive Washington will be to hearing them.

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