Our industry's unethical, indefensible behavior

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I've been writing a lot lately on the topic of online privacy at the intersection of advertising, and particularly the way the third-party tracking ecosystem has been evolving for the past few years. There is an ongoing onslaught of discussion about legislation and how we're probably going to get regulated. Some of my closest friends in the industry are at odds with my position, and many people are finding themselves diametrically opposed to people they respect over this issue. People are claiming that if we stop the targeting, all the value in this industry will bottom out -- that another bubble will burst, and advertising Armageddon will follow. I disagree. I believe a huge amount of value can be generated without marginally ethical behavior.

To me, it's a very clear issue -- one based on ethics and logic. If companies are tracking people across multiple websites without their consent, and without providing any recognizable value, and those people want the tracking stopped -- then it should probably stop. There is real money on the table for the companies that do this data collection, and changing the opt-out model to an opt-in model would decimate their financial outlooks. But this ultimately doesn't matter. As an industry, we are doing something that most people simply don't want us to do.

When a publisher tracks what its visitors do on that one publisher's site, tracking is a defensible practice. The online users who visit a publisher's site are electing to visit that publisher, and as long as the publisher is collecting data to be used only on its own website, then this falls into the standard quid pro quo relationship that already exists.

People get free or reduced-cost content that they desire to consume from a publisher. The publisher shows them ads, and frequently requires that the consumer register or subscribe (regardless of if this is a free or paid subscription) and hand over some data to be used to better sell ads to advertisers. While a person is visiting a publisher's site, the publisher certainly has the right to track his or her behavior. There are lots of reasons justifying this right. And consumers can choose to simply avoid visiting that particular publisher if they disagree with the publisher's privacy policy. And having a user specifically opt out of being tracked on that publisher's site is a great option to provide.

However, my issue is with the practice that has exploded over the past few years, where third-party companies place tracking tags all over the internet -- across multiple publishers -- and create comprehensive profiles of consumer behavior. This without any discernable value given back to the consumer (I have lots more to say on this issue below) and without their direct knowledge or consent. This tracking is all enabled by third-party tracking using third-party cookies. This capability was not what the browser designers created cookies for, and it is a sort of hack of the way browsers operate. If "hack" is too strong a word, it's at least an unintended loophole in browser design that has been used in ways that are hardly defensible.

While I am passionate on this topic, I actually think this argument is a moot point in many ways. I predict that the browsers are going to very elegantly enable consumers to block third-party cookies in the next few releases, and the whole house of cards built on top of this loophole in cookie security is going to fall to the ground.

The Internet Explorer team at Microsoft has already announced that IE 9 will make it extremely easy to block third-party cookies and content. And most technical people running the browser groups at Firefox (keep in mind, there really are no business people involved in this open-source browser) and Google (where technology drives most decisions) are all pretty smart; they understand the tracking behavior that they want to shield the public from. This is clearly an issue that technologists understand better than the general population, and most technical people I've talked to have arrived at the same conclusion: Blocking third-party tracking is in the best interest of consumers, it should be extremely easy to do, and the decision should be pre-populated as an opt-out.

Most of the discussions I've had on the opposite side of this issue have been with business people. They believe that there is no danger to consumers from what they perceive to be anonymous tracking of online behavior. And they continue to look at people who don't agree with them as privacy fanatics who are irrationally trying to limit their businesses from succeeding. This isn't the case, and I certainly am not fanatical about privacy. But I've learned a lot over the past 10 years about this topic, and on top of this, the market has radically shifted in the past three years. The amount of tracking going on has seen a huge increase, and the safeguards on the data being collected are quite squishy.

There is a real issue here that apparently hasn't been understood by a lot of non-technical people. So-called anonymous tracking is fairly easily cracked open. And now that there are many mechanisms that have been created for matching cookies across domains and companies, there are numerous broadly correlated profiles of user behavior floating around. Many of the companies that have copies of these profiles are small startups, many without nearly the funding or maturity needed to build extremely secure environments. And even some of the biggest companies out there have had significant security breaches over the last few years -- breaches that have leaked millions of people's data into the public domain.

Many of the executives at the companies operating in this sphere are very reputable and honorable people who are certainly not being malicious or trying to hurt people. But what happens if their companies are purchased by less-reputable entities? Clearly those with scruples will simply quit and find other work. But now we've got a company run by unethical and dangerous individuals with access to a ton of data that can pretty quickly and easily be reverse-engineered to do diabolical things.

Or what if a startup isn't successful and goes into bankruptcy -- and the data assets get auctioned off to the highest bidder? Or what if there is a security breach and a hacker gets access to the company's log files or plants spyware on its servers? There have been cases in this industry of crackers getting into server farms and hosting software there that gave them access to a lot of data. And of course, there is the other problem of companies that are just unethical to begin with.

Many proofs have been created that show how easy it is to reverse-engineer anonymous tracking. With a small amount of data to correlate with non-private activity, any decent engineer can take apart the anonymous shell around a person's profile and merge it with personally identifiable information from other sources. And suddenly we've got non-anonymous profiles with all sorts of data in the hands of not-so-scrupulous people. Not a recipe for comfort.



Jay Walsh
Jay Walsh December 19, 2011 at 2:16 PM

Funny... but if you're outside of a business and continued these practices, it would be called stalking.