Like marketers in the UK don’t have enough problems the ICO (Internet Comissioners Office) the regulatory body in Britain for all things to do with online privacy made it even harder back in May. On May 25th 2011 the ICO told the UK online marketing industry that all visitors to UK websites must opt-in if they are to receive cookies and placed a section at the top of their own website demonstrating what UK companies might do to enforce it. Have a look if you’re interested.
If their own website traffic since this time is anything to go by online marketing in the UK is in trouble. (Picture supplied by Vicky Brock)
Approximately 90% of the visitors did not opt-in. And why should anyone opt-in? There is no downside of not opting in on the site so it makes perfect sense that most people wouldn’t.
Now before all the privacy folks have a go at me I am not suggesting for a moment that privacy isn’t important. Far from it. I have argued the case before for peoples right to anonymity particularly when Phorm and BT broke the law back in 2008. As I said in that post privacy should be the Holy grail as far as online marketing is concerned but when people ask you to opt in to receive an identifier that looks like this;
I think this is when it gets a bit silly. The above is a cookie. Scary stuff isn’t it?
That’s what Twitter uses to identify me as a repeat visitor to their website. And in the analytics tools I use of have used in the past (approximately 20 or so) I have never even seen an individuals cookie. You know why? Cos it would be a pointless way to demonstrate what a visitor was.
Let’s imagine for instance that Analytics tools did show individual cookies in their reports. What could you do with it? Does ZLhHHTiegr9Ny%2FdlviNhjUoXSrVDRIOE7v61hsd%2F8NY%3D say Steve Jackson visited? No. Does it identify me personally? No. Does this simple string of characters launch dangerous software on my computer allowing hackers to get my credit card information? No.
Basically it’s a string of text that is recognized by Twitter.com with one purpose, to tailor preferences to me because I’ve been there before. That’s it.
Here is another scary cookie;
Yes you got it, that’s Steve Jackson visiting his own blog and that it obviously a Google Analytics tracking cookie of the UTMA variety. I bet you guessed that immediately. Not! But that’s not even the farcical thing.
The farcical thing is that when I look at Google Analytics I don’t even see this cookie, I am just logged as a repeat visitor (a totally anonymous number). So if there were 10,000 repeat visits to my website and then I visited, that cookie would be recognized and I would be reported as the 10001st repeat visit. There isn’t even a place in the tool that says this is what 162046575.1061623444.1310637483.1310637483.1310637483.1 did today when they visited. The cookie is just aggregated along with the rest of the visitors so that I can see trends about what the 10001 people did. If you don’t believe me set up a Google Analytics account and look for yourself. At the time of writing it’s free.
This is the same of the vast majority of web analytics tools available today. The ones that do report single visitors (Yahoo! Analytics for instance) only report at the IP address level so you get something like 18.104.22.168 as an identifier for the visitor. Even if you go and identify the IP address which you can do in a number of freely available tools you would still only get a company name and the companies location not an individual person. Try it with mine if you like.
The final farce is this.
Look in your wallet. Got a credit card? A loyalty card? I would bet my house that 99% of the people reading this have some form of bank, credit, debit or loyalty card in their wallet. Has it got your name on it? Every time you use one of those they log what you do and this is personally identifiable information. They know your name, where you live, what car you drive, where you shop, what mobile phone you have, your phone number, whether you have kids, a dog, a rabbit, a budgie in fact all your purchase history since you started using your card. Don’t believe me? look at your credit card bill.
Businesses have been profiling you since the day you were born in order to sell you stuff. They can easily find out everything about you by bringing up your name in a computer. It’s why you get 10% off your purchases when you use your loyalty card. You might argue that the point is you gave the company permission to have your data and it would be true. But I would counter that by saying they have already got a good idea of what to sell you based on your demographics. This is the informed guess they make when you’re anonymous in order to sell stuff to you. That in my opinion is all that a cookie does, allow businesses to make informed decisions based on your anonymous data.
So in summary the ICO have set the UK up to be less competitive than other countries in the world. If companies in the UK start making online marketing decisions without knowing what 90% of their traffic does there will be a lot of money lost and a lot of pissed off customers.