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The Ethical Issues with 3rd Party Behavioral Tracking

Eric Picard"The Debate" is a column focused on the current debate around ad targeting and consumer privacy. Last week, executives in the digital ad ecosystem provided their thoughts about online behavioral advertising and, specifically, "If a consumer asked you 'Why is tracking good?', what would you say?" Read it.

Today, TRAFFIQ Chief Product Officer Eric Picard continues the theme with his own thoughts on behavioral tracking.

Companies that track consumers' behavior across the web without their consent, and without providing them any recognizable value, should stop. I'll argue that virtually no company that tracks consumer behavior across multiple sites actually provides consumers with recognizable value.

And the real issue here is that consumers never opt-into being tracked this way – if we required this, then the ethical issues would go away. But we don't require an opt-in because in reality, consumers don't want this, don't benefit from it, and as an industry we're acting in unethical ways. I realize that for this audience, my position makes me as unpopular as a New York City steam bath in August, but I challenge the industry to really stand up and do the right thing here.

For clarity - Publishers that track what their visitors do on that one publisher's site face completely different issues. Consumers who visit a publisher's site are engaging in a direct relationship with that publisher. As long as the publisher is collecting data to be used only on its own website, this is defensible – the consumer has elected to visit their site, and gets the value of content that the publisher provides. And if the publisher asks the consumer to opt-into being tracked across multiple websites, then there is no ethical issue at stake. But cross-publisher behavioral tracking should definitely require an opt-in.

As long as a publisher has a clear privacy policy, data collection for their site without an opt-in is ethical. The consumer gets value from personalization of content as well as enabling the publisher to sell behaviorally targeted advertising. And the publisher has the right to collect this data to optimize their business, especially given that most publishers make the most of their revenue from advertising - this data is generally used to better sell ads to advertisers.

While a consumer is visiting a publisher's site, the publisher certainly has the right to track his or her behavior. And having a user specifically 'opt-out' of being tracked on that publisher is the 'right' option to provide in terms of creating consumer good will.


DMP: The Democratic Media Platform

The Debate"The Debate" is a column focused on the current debate around ad targeting and consumer privacy.

Today's article is written by Jeff Hirsch, President and CEO, AudienceScience, an online advertising technology company.

I hear and read a lot these days about the democratizing power of the Internet. It’s a great issue. Some pundits say entire revolutions in the Middle East are being fueled by social media. And the film generating the most buzz at the SXSW festival was “Pause, Press, Play,” which takes a hard look at the democratizing effect the Internet has had on arts, culture and society. In this case it’s not always a good thing. Exhibit: Friday by Rebecca Black. Exhibit: Warlock.

The Internet is also a democratizing force in the digital world.

Here’s what I mean by providing Web “democratization.” All due respect to Apple and iTunes, but there’s a lot more to music than the top 40, classic rock and indie rock that it has built its business on. It needs competitors to keep it price-sensitive and it needs competitors that can affordably spread their message of more eclectic musical offerings. I’d hate to see eMusic go away because it can’t compete. It is sophisticated, eclectic and focused on discovering new music. I’d hate to see the reasonably balanced and in-depth Washington view of Politico go away, with its accompanying ad network, because it couldn’t provide the infrastructure to its advertisers like the New York Times, WSJ and USA Today do. Amazon accepts ads on some of its newer properties, with the strong accompanying argument that says it’s more merchandising than advertising. Winbuyer, on the other hand, runs network ads on its site, and is more likely to depend on these ads as a way to drive revenue and compete against more powerful retailers.


Let The Consumer Decide

The Debate"The Debate" is a column focused on the current debate around ad targeting and consumer privacy.

Today's article is written by Zach Coelius, CEO, Triggit.

As the debate about the use of user data or "privacy" on the Internet swirls around us, a cacophony of voices are yelling that unless we adopt their policies the world will surely end, or at the very least the Internet will die.  Clearly all the players in this debate have agendas- some obvious, some less so- which motivate their claims.

Probably the most apparent are the agendas of those of us in the online ad industry. While we frame our arguments around what is best for the Internet, we are all concerned about our jobs and our businesses, and we are fighting to protect the value we believe we bring to the Internet.  The other participants in the debate are equally self-serving, be they the global media corporations whose newspapers are writing about the use of data in marketing, the privacy advocates who claim to speak for the general public, the rule-making bureaucrats or our erstwhile politicians, everyone has an interest in seeing this play out according to what is best for them.

While all these players joust, the most important participants are being ignored; we are failing to let the public weigh in on this debate.  The reason this is happening is that it is incredibly hard to ask the public what they actually want.  Unfortunately, polling doesn’t work since few people understand how the Internet functions and how reliant it is on data at its very core.  Asking everyday people if they would like to restrict the way the Internet uses data about them is like asking if they would like lower taxes. Without an understanding of the trade-offs involved everyone simply says yes.


Coming to a Website Near You: More Irrelevant Advertisements

The Debate"The Debate" is a column focused on the current debate around ad targeting and consumer privacy.

Today's article is written by: Mark Kesslen, David Leit, Matthew Savare, Lowenstein Sandler, a law firm. (See bios.)

Just in time for the holidays, the FTC has released its preliminary report, "Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change." Although privacy advocates may welcome the report as a gift, many portions, if adopted by policymakers, will prove to be a lump of coal to the advertising industry, website owners, and ultimately, to consumers who benefit from the free content, personalized services, and useful ads made possible by targeted advertising technologies.

The report proposes to move past the FTC’s traditional approaches to consumer privacy of providing "notice-and-choice" and specific remedies for specific harms, such as physical and economic injury. Instead, the FTC has proposed a far more expansive policy framework concerning data privacy. The framework would apply broadly to any company, online or offline, that collects, maintains, shares, or otherwise uses consumer data that can be "reasonably linked to a specific consumer, computer or device." In other words, the framework is not limited to companies that collect personally identifiable information ("PII"), such as a name, social security number, or e-mail address. It is much broader, and expressly covers offline commercial entities, entities that do not deal directly with consumers, and entities that do not collect PII. It is also intended to remedy harms far less specific than those contemplated by the FTC’s historical approach to privacy. Under the new proposed framework, the FTC also looks to protect consumers against vaguely defined harms such as "reputational and other intangible privacy interests." In today’s information age, it is difficult to conceive of many commercial enterprises – other than pure cash businesses, if any still exist – that would not be governed by this new framework.


How the "Do Not Track" Plan Hurts Consumers, Businesses, and the Potential for Economic Growth

The Debate"The Debate" is a column focused on the current debate around ad targeting and consumer privacy.

Today's article is written by Russell Glass, CEO, Bizo.

This article is about the importance of transparency. In that vein, let me start out by saying that I am the CEO of a company that specializes in business audience targeting online. But before you stop reading and think this is a plea from a vendor in the space, I want you to know that I’m writing this as both a business professional AND a consumer. I have been a steadfast proponent of accountability, transparency and privacy in the online world, frequently writing and speaking about the positive ramifications of both self and government regulation in this field.   So I hope to bring some credibility and a grounded perspective to the table when I argue that the FTC’s recommendation that the industry put in place a "Do Not Track" system has us heading down the wrong path.   The problems with the recommendation which was included in the recent FTC report on internet privacy are varied but my primary issues with it are that it will:

  1. Stifle the innovation and growth in our country in an area where we must continue to lead -internet technologies.
  2. Harm the consumer experience online.
  3. Cause the very same lack of transparency by the government that they’re attempting to quench.

But, let’s take a step back and look at the "Do Not Track" concept.  The idea is simple on the face of it – put a “Do Not Track” capability in browsers whereby users can “opt-out” of being tracked for advertising purposes online.  Some speculate that this latest effort would be very similar to the successful “Do Not Call” list that 180 million U.S. consumers have opted into since its implementation almost a decade ago.  Although similar in name, the two concepts are actually significantly different.  The online equivalent of the disruptive nature of a phone call would be a marketer being able to navigate the user’s browser away from the site they are currently looking at and put a new site in front of them without their permission – a website that the user was forced to respond to in some way.  In other words, it is the annoying and frustrating “nested pop-up ad” of the Internet world that an online fix equivalent to the “Do Not Call” would prevent.  Of course, because of their annoyance to users, pop-ups have long been relegated to the scrap heap without the need for a “Do Not Call”-like capability for all but porn sites.


Why IP Tracking Is A Bad Idea

The Debate"The Debate" is a column focused on the current debate around ad targeting and consumer privacy.

Today's article is written by Auren Hoffman, CEO, Rapleaf.

IP addresses are the fabric of the Internet— they are the “To” and “From” stamps that make delivering messages between computers possible.  While they are necessary to route information from computer to computer, they can -- in many cases -- be traced to a human or, at least, a household.  That means they can be used to track people’s online behavior in a way that eliminates their anonymity online, which bodes poorly for the future of the internet.

Users should be anonymous when they aren’t logged in

While new technologies that enable content personalization can provide substantial value, users must also be assured that their identity is protected for legal, ethical, and safety reasons.  Consumers should have the presumption of anonymity when they are surfing the Internet and not logged into a site, and they should not be tracked - either by the government or private sector – in a way that eliminates anonymity.

To ensure consumer safety and the Internet’s continuing growth, the presumption of anonymity is paramount.  In particular, third-party services like ad networks, widgets, and off-site platforms like Facebook Connect, should maintain individual anonymity. They should not be able to see someone’s cookie, IP address, or browser information and know exactly who the person is.

IP addresses are personally identifiable


Why Online Advertising Should Be Regulated

The Debate"The Debate" is a column focused on the current debate around ad targeting and consumer privacy.

Today's article is written by Auren Hoffman, CEO, Rapleaf.

The online advertising industry is going through rapid and exciting changes. In the past two years, we’ve moved from a publisher-centric model to a network-centric model and now to a data-centric model. Top advertisers can now buy specific audiences in addition to specific publishers.

All of these innovations provide consumers with a better experience with more relevant ads, customized content, and less spam while giving advertisers more confidence in the performance of online ads.

While this technological transformation is enabling a richer and more personalized web, it also raises new privacy concerns for consumers as their data is being analyzed and shared. The increasing lack of clarity about data practices for technology providers and consumers alike will likely impede further growth in online advertising.


Ad Nauseum

"The Debate" is a column focused on the current debate around ad targeting and consumer privacy.

Today's article is written by Amiad Solomon, Founder & President, Peer39.

From the inception of the internet, online advertisers have been continuously experimenting with methods of targeting ads, in search of a technology that delivers a brand’s ideal audience, at scale. Over the past few years, marketers have become enamored with behavioral targeting, which utilizes consumer activity and preferences to serve ads that are relevant to the individual. However, while behavioral has gained acceptance among media buyers, and has achieved notable success, it has also opened the door for an ardent global campaign for the protection of user privacy.

In the US, the FTC, along with consumer advocacy groups, has demanded that behavioral targeting technologies curtail their use of consumer data. These groups argue that cookie-based targeting technologies traverse privacy concerns because users are not aware of the data that is collected from their online behavior.

Last month, a trio of lawyers wrote an article for this publication criticizing privacy groups for protesting behavioral targeting. The authors posit that behavioral is an innovative breakthrough, and that “the complainants seem upset that we've just gotten increasingly good at [ad targeting].” (View the article here.)


Targeting Real-Time Targeting: Privacy Groups File Overreaching Suit With The FTC Against Real-Time Behavioral Advertising

The Debate"The Debate" is a column focused on the current debate around ad targeting and consumer privacy.

Today's article is written by: Ed Zimmerman, Mark Kesslen, and Matthew Savare, Lowenstein Sandler, a law firm. (See bios.)

Let’s say you’re surfing the web, planning your next vacation with the family.  You visit several travel sites, book your plane tickets and hotel, and rent a car.  You also read some reviews and blogs about your destination, the local restaurants, and nightlife.  You then Tweet about it and go to Facebook where you reconnect with one of your friends who lives in the area you’re visiting.  From the searches you’ve run, it’s clear that you’re going to the French countryside and you’re interested in activities for the family, with a winery visit or two.

After playing around on the social networking sites, you decide to do more research for your trip.  Given the way the Internet now works, you expect – actually, you know definitively – that you’re going to be served some ads to help pay for all this free information you’re getting.  And now comes the fundamental question: would you rather get served an ad about the best local dining, a great idea for a day trip near your destination, or ads for a wonder drug that’s totally inapplicable to you?

It seems too obvious to even ask the question, but recently, several privacy groups filed a legal action seeking to ensure that we continue to receive those wonder drug ads, technological advances be damned!  These self-appointed privacy advocates seek to stop – or at least greatly curtail – the natural evolution from irrelevant online ads that are pushed at you (and millions of other uninterested consumers) to smarter ads that are contextualized and served to you based on your preferences, interests, and needs.