Alienating the privacy pundits

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.

Steve is a well known analytics specialist, author and speaker. A pioneer since 2002, he established one of the first European web analytics consultancies (Aboavista), later acquired by Satama (now Trainers’ House) in 2006. In 2008 he wrote his first book Cult Of Analytics published on May 14th 2009. He currently serves as CEO at Quru and has presented and keynoted web analytics topics across Europe. These include The Internet Marketing Conference (Stockholm), The Search Engine strategies (Stockholm), IIH (Copenhagen), the IAB Finland (Helsinki), Media Plaza (Amsterdam), Design For Conversion (Amsterdam) The eMetrics Summit (London, Munich, Stockholm), Divia (Helsinki) in addition to sitting on dozens of panels.

Posted in General

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5 comments on “Alienating the privacy pundits
  1. John Lovett says:

    I hear you loud and clear. But in my humble opinion, it’s education that is desperately needed.

    Here’s my initial thoughts on how we open people’s minds to what we really know:

    Good stuff Steve, thanks for keeping us thinking ahead.

  2. Steve,

    While I certainly respect your opinion and thinking on the subject I find myself a little frustrated with your “toothless” line of thinking. Rather than sitting around hand-wringing and complaining, John and I actually took some initiative and created a vehicle to give the web analytics community a platform from which to communicate and work to dispel the FUD you describe. We have been talking to the mainstream press and using the Code of Ethics to start a conversation that was otherwise not happening … only to have respected members of the community (not only you) blithely comment “oh well if there is no enforcement mechanism this effort is worthless crap.”

    Discouraging to say the least.

    The balance of your post describes the problem we all face but, respectfully, I propose that the time to describe the problem has passed and that efforts at this point would be better spent actually doing something meaningful. If you have a better idea than the Code of Ethics and our outreach based on that work then by all means speak up … I can assure you that I am all ears and I know I am not alone.

    I appreciate your nod to our “great initiative” but I think perhaps you’re missing your own point. You talk about Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt and the popular press and comment that our effort would be “laughed out of court.” Maybe true, but you don’t fight FUD and the press in a court of law; you fight FUD and press bias in the court of public opinion, and at least in the court of public opinion I work in showing some real effort and initiative actually counts for something.

    Regarding the WAA drafting a legal white paper to give to the EU and the FTC … umm, no comment. Suffice to say the Code of Ethics approach is one that I personally believe will create the greatest tangible and public facing benefit with the minimum of effort from the Association.

    Anyway I look forward to hearing back from you and having a look at your alternative effort to the Code.


    Eric T. Peterson

  3. @John;
    I agree on the education part. I will comment on your post so thanks for the heads up.

    I actually didn’t expect the source of criticism for this post to be you, I was expecting the usual WAA defense committee but John responded in a way I hoped they would.

    Firstly I never said it was crap nor criticized beyond what I feel are its limits. The code has helped start this conversation which was surely the point in the first place as you yourself suggest. You have succeeded in drawing a public opinion out of me that I have always held and defended on one or two occasions over the years.

    Toothless wasn’t meant to insult/frustrate you, John or the WAA. But my point is showing any client or layman journalist the code is like saying “you should trust us because we’re nice chaps really”, when actually people are already pissed off with privacy violations that corporations have inflicted on them. And I mean big trusted corporations like BT.

    Joe doesn’t trust corporations and why should he?

    Corporations are legally bound to make profit for their investors. Mine is. So is Google. So is FaceBook. So is BT. A code goes out of the window if it loses money for the corporation because by the letter of the law it is illegal to take the stance which loses money for the corporation. I would suggest following the code at the moment would cost more than its worth for most businesses in the space and therefore won’t be adopted until the corporation is legally bound to do so.

    To your point on doing something meaningful. What else can I do?

    I can spread the conversation further in the court of public opinion which I am already doing. I can iterate what’s already there which I am already doing. I could create my own code of ethics or something similar (but what’s the point? the existing one is very good) I could offer my advice to anyone who is creating the legal frameworks which I already did. Aside from that there isn’t much more I can do.

    What are our options beyond this?

    Maybe the WAA could put a panel of people together that know what they’re talking about, spend some money on a good attorney and draft a legal document that takes the principles behind the code of ethics and turns them into a potentially binding legal framework that the industry has to follow. Then pass that on to the FTC/EU to iterate. This helps them and us.

    That is doing something and that is what I am calling for.

    Maybe we could actually change our industry for the better and cut out the cowboys legally by forcing their tools and practices to be compliant with regulations that make sense rather than having to opt-in to every website we ever visit.

    As I said in my original post the code is something that can be built on. Right now though it simply isn’t enough in my opinion. It was submitted the 12th September and what has happened since then that has changed anything the FTC are doing?

    It wasn’t designed to discourage you it was designed to make you ask yourself if what I am suggesting is possible and if so how could it be achieved? If it doesn’t work then fair enough, at least we examined the possibility. Better than simply dismissing the idea with “No comment”.

    The only real problem i see is money to pay a lawyer. That’s why I suggested the WAA take this up as the industry body.

  4. Jay Tkachuk says:

    The current privacy brouhaha was inevitable, just like its predecessor a decade ago that centered around the credit card information aggregators. We know we can’t wait it out due to the possibility of potentially destructive legislation passed by people that don’t understand the issue at hand. We also, however, lack practical means of explaining the issue to Joe Public, or an effective enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance within the industry. I suggest we tackle the education issue by building social media apps that would allow users to construct tracking scenarios, technologies included, and clearly demonstrate where the ethical line lies. Obviously, this would provide only a high level of knowledge, but I believe it would be sufficient. Such a solution would give the consumer the power of knowing how various types of sites capture their info and what they do with it, leaving it up to the consumer to monitor their browsing habits while informing them about potential dangers. I don’t believe we as an industry can create an effective compliance enforcement mechanism, but we can create an online directory of known ethics violators and proactively push this information into media, similar to what the online security industry is doing to publicize its struggle against cyber-crime. Once the public realizes that web analytics is full of ethical professionals that would not tolerate ethics violations, and, thus, have Joe Public’s back, the sensationalism would lose its luster, and we will be able to work in peace.

  5. @Jay;
    I agree spreading the ethic is a good place to start. Have you seen John Lovetts’ efforts at starting this?

    It’s not so much an app but an infographic he wants to create that could go viral if it’s well defined and constructed;

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "Alienating the privacy pundits"
  1. […] So back to you Captain Blackbeak…I’m listening and this is what I’m doing to create change. It’s a change in perception. A change in education. And a change in direction for our industry. But like you, I cannot do this alone and need the support and mindshare of our industry. With the help of my partner Eric and the industry #measure pros out there my goal is to crowd source this idea to ensure that I’ve fully considered the technology capabilities and the benefits of tracking practices, So I need your help. The Web Analyst’s Code of Ethics is one part of this, but I’ll be working to define the pros and cons of data collection and the methods by which we accomplish our task. Stay tuned for more, as this is just the beginning… […]

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