In the last year or two I’ve noticed mainstream journalists and commentators taking a stance on consumer privacy on the Internet.
There are 3 main instigators behind the majority of these articles. Fear, Doubt & Uncertainty.
“Technology has rendered the conventional definition of personally identifiable information obsolete,” said Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the Federal Trade Commission’s privacy division. “You can find out who an individual is without it.” (NYT – How privacy vanishes online; March – 2010)
This is a guy from the FTC making a statement about how we can track all your personal movements online and more importantly tie them back to you. Its true. It’s possible. And it’s completely wrong in my opinion to do it but not illegal.
The problem here is bad journalism. This guy from the FTC could be talking about anything from using tracking logs (which is harmless) to deep packet inspection of mirrored consumer journey content (which isn’t). The first and most important question I’d ask of this article is “What technology are we talking about?” I know the bad technology from the good but Joe Public doesn’t.
The journalist has conjured up an article which takes a very one sided view, the view he wants to sensationalize in order to get readers interested instead of doing a good job giving a balanced account of what to look out for.
This is breeding fear. Fear makes you want to know how to fight or when to flee. Fighting in this case is getting informed (therefore reading the NYT and becoming all outraged…. Damn those advertisers! They shall know the porn sites I frequent! They must be stopped!). Fleeing is simply pulling the plug and sitting in the dark with a magazine and a pocket torch.
The problem is the NYT has taken the sensational view, an unbalanced one.
While you or I might ask “what technology” Joe who reads the times wouldn’t know to ask that and so the propaganda starts winning the education battle.
Let’s face it, the public have a right to doubt what corporations, consultants, industry bodies and advertising agencies are telling them simply because of the amount of times they have been robbed blind by the very same individuals. Don’t even get me started on the state of the search marketing industry. Bunch of bloody cowboys half of them! I know, I’ve seen the analytics!
Politicians can’t help us because they go where the votes are and are therefore dishonest by default, so who do we turn to to get unbiased opinions out there?
All of the above fear and doubt leaves Joe Public wondering what to do and relying on people that he trusts. He doesn’t trust anyone and uncertain about what to do (or not) Joe freezes and does nothing. Like a rabbit in the headlights.
But there is someone he trusts. The opinions of his Mom, his family, his friends, his friends’ friends. Should I use FaceBook? Well 500 million people can’t be wrong can they? And Bob uses it every day, they never know what porn Bob looks at…. well, Ok, I’ll use it too.
So is Social Media Actually our industries Savior?
Should I pick up the phone to Zuckerberg? Well, no, people don’t trust him either (and he probably wouldn’t answer! :). But there may be something to say for public acceptance, good PII laws and corporate responsibility.
This is where we as an industry need to begin
Isn’t it better to embrace the potential publicity as an opportunity to educate and enlighten rather than stick your head in the sand and hope the privacy issue goes away? If we can address the fear, doubt and uncertainty that exists around online tracking and analytics we’d not only become the good guys (in 99% of cases) but we’d also expand as an industry. I liken this opportunity to the day Google gave away Google Analytics for free. We may even break out of the nerd corner into the mainstream business world!
It’s started already, Eric came out with a code of Ethics and the WAA are building on it, a great start, but it’s still a bit toothless. It’s nice to say you follow a code but it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on really. Certainly it would be laughed out of court. However could more be done? Could we build on the great initiative shown by Eric, John and the WAA?
Is the WAA the right organization to stand up here? Could they give the FTC their own draft of a law (not Ethics but a legal white paper based on those Ethics). One that is fair for the consumer and protects his or her rights while being sensible where behavioral targeting is concerned.
A law that can be examined and iterated by the FTC and the EU. (SECRET: They don’t know what they’re doing, so help them!)
If not them who? I feel it is the WAA that should take that forward, get some press and get some people on our side. I can’t write it for them (I’m not a lawyer) but I can help. I can tell them what’s Ok and what isn’t. So can some privacy guys I know that have fought their cases and won in Europe. So can some readers of this post. Over to anyone listening.