Let The Consumer Decide

The DebateThe 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.

Because all of these polls are framed as an issue of “privacy” rather than what it really is, which is a data use question, it is virtually impossible for people to answer in any way other than in the affirmative.

Moreover, since the questions we seek to answer about the use of data are incredibly complex, it would be a massive exercise in hubris to extrapolate from answers to simple surveys where we should draw the lines on the types, uses and permitted participants in the data ecosystem.   Given how hard it is to understand the true positions of the public, anyone in this debate who claims to speak for them should be viewed with considerable suspicion.

While asking the public their view on this issue is not sufficient, there is a solution.  The actions of Internet users collectively speak much louder then any of our words and those actions should be how we adjudicate this debate.   At this very moment, browser developers are locked in a fierce battle for market share and they have all announced that they will be rolling out simple do-not-track features very soon.

When Firefox first launched it was able to grab significant market share by blocking pop-ups.  Knowing this, browsers developers are highly incentivized to jump on the do-not-track bandwagon in the hopes of achieving the same gains.  Without an act of the U.S. Congress the market is giving the general public the ability to easily become untrackable in the same way they can now with more cumbersome features like Adblockplus, Google Chrome’s Incognito, Firefox’s Private Browsing and others.

People will be given the opportunity to vote their interests in this debate with the simple click of a button. Some folks will take advantage of these features and some won’t.   Those who choose to decline to share data, they will find that the Internet works less effectively and they will develop an understanding of the ramifications of an Internet where data doesn’t flow freely.   Not only will these users experience technical disruptions; they will also find that some websites block them or require payment in the same way some international users are currently filtered.  Their experience with a crippled Internet without data will enable them to make an informed choice. Through giving users the choice in this question we will be able to see if the general public truly cares about the issue.  If enough of the general public chooses an Internet where data doesn’t flow freely, we as industry will adapt. If on the other hand we see that the adoption of these new features are in line with the number of people who currently choose to make themselves anonymous online, we will see that this whole debate was conjured up by a few loud voices and restricting the flow of data is not something the public wants.

So, instead of any of us deciding what is best for others according to our own interest and agendas, let people choose for themselves.  At the current rate that browser developers are building technology the market is answering this question faster then any federal rule making or legislation ever could.  One of the most important reasons why the internet today is such a wondrous thing is that its evolutions has been driven not by committees or insiders but instead by the collective actions of all of us.

If the use of data is as bad as a few select voices would make it out to be, the market mechanisms of the Internet will do away with it in the same way that they killed pop-ups, adware and flashing graphics.

Follow Zach Coelius (@zachcoelius), Triggit (@triggit) and AdExchanger.com (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. nice piece zach. last time i checked, people could go into their browsers and block cookies with relative ease. i find the argument being made by the privacy wonks to be totally disingenuous – consumers have quite a bit of control right now.

    I think that once “do not track” is built into every browser we will all find out the truth, and what people actually do will be very different than what they say in surveys.

  2. Chris Brinkworth - TagMan

    Great piece Zach.

    Putting my old media planner hat on, not a TagMan hat. People who don’t want to be tracked, are really going to be of no use to advertisers – therefore of much less value to a publisher who is paying to serve them up content, bandwidth etc and needs to package them up to sell to the DSPs etc.

    Not unlike the days where publishers sniffed out ‘ad block’ software and told users to go away – I expect something similar could happen to users who opt in to not tracking. Publishers will have ‘premium’ content which can only be accessed by those who are ok with their tracking settings. The others are told to go elsewhere.

    p.s – John, I like the new commenting system.

    • I agree Chris that users who are blocking ads are of little to no value to advertisers. But they are a cost for publishers with zero return and can very fairly be asked to pay for the content, bandwidth and hard work that is being provided them. I think a lot of pubs will institute such a smart pay wall if any sort of systematic and wide scale cookie blocking goes into effect.

      Btw. Isn’t it strange that none of the so called privacy advocates haven’t commented? They certainly read this site, but it appears they are unwilling to debate the issues.

  3. Alan,
    I totally agree. Less then 1% of the population currently blocks tracking even though it is as easy as adding a browser plugin. My bet is that this whole tempest will die down as people grow comfortable with it in the same way they accepted data driven direct mail. We’ll see though, maybe people actually do care about this enough to make the effort to block tracking.

    • Daniel DArling

      A plugin that awards the user for their data has more potential value than one that simply blocks data transfer. Economics are tricky, but if someone builds a firefox/chrome extension that awards users for their data while letting users control exactly what data is shared we might be in a better place than relying on data or ad-blockers which only detract value.

      If you look at the stats on firefox’s leading ad blocker I’m guessing it’s now well above 1%. The leading ad-block program on Firefox has 12MM daily worldwide users, a little under a 1/3 of which appear to be from the US. That’s just a single plugin on a single browswer. That said, I think device fragmentation will help slow down use of ad-blockers because the number of people that install on their mobile devices or other internet enabled devices will be initially small.

      Long story short, to fix the problem add the consumer into the value chain on everyone’s favorite “luma display lanscape” chart we might be in a better place than relying on data and ad-blockers which don’t help anyone. Free content in and off itself is unfortunately not enough of a reward anymore. I think the consumer has shown they are okay with degrading quality of content so long as it remains free…as partly shown by increase in reality tv (just an opinion of course).

    • Jonathan, if the FTC was actually able to “block” either popups or adware they both would be completely gone, they are not. The reason why both popups and adware are mostly gone is that technology has largely solved for all but the most insidious edge cases of both. Are you also going to claim that CAN-SPAM has blocked spam?

  4. Great post Zach…a alternate title for this could be “Cui Bono?”

    The framing of is most definitely key. Actually, it reminds me of the debate between ComScore and Atlas about cookie deletion from a few years back.

    I agree that consumers should provided free choice and permitted to decide for themselves. The reality is that such a “free market” approach flies in the face of a consumer activist FTC and White House. We shall see…