From the WSJ:
The Wall Street Journal conducted a comprehensive study that assesses and analyzes the broad array of cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on Internet users. It reveals that the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry. The study found that the nation’s 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred.
In this survey, the vast majority of people were concerned about ‘privacy’.
To which I respond: Tracking is not a privacy issue. It’s actually good for you, and good for society. (Really.)
Tracking = Legitimate Companies. Privacy Invaders = Illegitimate Organizations.
It’s not like these tracking-companies are doing anything novel, invasive, or even risky. They aren’t capturing your credit card number, or your home address, or the contents of your romantic emails. They are capturing the kind of things you’re interested in seeing online, so that advertisers can promote goods and services that you’re interested in, rather than spamming you with stuff that completely annoys you. The advertising industry knows perfectly well that people want privacy. Brand owners know perfectly well that if they mistreat your private information, that their brand, their products and their stock price, will pay a very high cost for that abuse.
There are plenty of sites that will install malware and viruses. Tracking sites and cookies don’t do that. It’s not in their interest. It would put them out of business if they did install viruses or malware. Advertisers avoid anything negative. It’s too dangerous. Spammers don’t. That’s why spam and certain web sites, or petty criminal web sites (downloading or free entertainment) are the sources of malware and viruses. So, it’s not your absurd searching that will generally get you in trouble. ***It’s trying to get something for free.*** Spammers, Malware and Viruses are delivered by disreputable organizations doing disreputable things on disreputable sites. But advertisers aren’t. Advertisers use TRACKING cookies, and avoid malware, spam and viruses.
Nobody Cares. You Aren’t Special
But lets also look at it another way: Nobody cares if you surf adult sites, read about absurd human behavior at 11pm, or watch silly animal or kung-fu videos, delve into subcultures you would never interact with in real life, and generally prove that you are surfing under safe conditions for novel, absurd, silly , or radical experiences from the safety of your laptop – which is the best way to explore them.
But that said, no one cares. Why? Because you aren’t special. You aren’t interesting. You aren’t rare. In fact, you’re so average that if you saw your surfing behavior graphed next to everyone else’s you’d be horrified and how much you had in common with people form all walks of life. We revel in the absurd. We like to learn from a safe distance. We like to understand the very limits of human behavior. We like to fantasize about what we could never really do. And there isn’t any harm in it. In fact, all things considered, it seems that just the opposite is true: it turns out that it’s a vent, a safe exploration, and it’s good for you, and society.
The private world of browsing is indeed private. It’s like using the bathroom. Everyone does it. We just don’t talk about it in public. That’s because it’s not risky to browse such things. By contrast, it’s very risky to DO those things in real life. That’s why we keep risky behavior safe, private and on the web. A relationship between you and your browser.
The Self Interest Of Advertisers
But your eccentric surfing behavior isn’t helpful to an advertiser. There isn’t anything really useful to advertise next to those oddities that isn’t already being advertised there. It’s not like Coca Cola, Nike and IBM want to be associated with cheap european amateur adult videos, snippets of skateboarders doing face-plants, or some silly little group of bloggers fomenting rebellion on some little personal political agenda. Or to be gender-balanced, your favorite little gossip site, compromising celebrity photos, rants about how awful men are for being interested in something other than living to fulfill a woman’s every whim, insecurity, status impairment, and nesting urge, and the fact that you shop for clothes that are too young and fitted for your weight, figure and age group.
Your sense of individuality – the one that makes you want to protect your privacy – is a self imposed delusion. A delusion we embrace because our self image is part of our sense of social status. We guard that self illusion like we guard our property. If that realization seems unpleasant to your self esteem, then you know why advertisers are good at their jobs: they know this simple fact about you. They know you aren’t special, but you need to think that you are.
Brands Only Want To Advertise In Places You Aren’t Ashamed Of Visiting
Because of that, they only care about those places where reputable brands can advertise on the web. Not those things where they can’t. And more importantly, even if you were special, it’s not valuable to big brands to associate with perceived absurdities. Brands are public entities. They have public personas. Mixing those brands with anything that would not be done in public would be damaging to them. In fact, if a tracking organization captures enough data that could associate a group of consumer behavior that was aberrant, with a well known brand, (say associating domestic violence with a brand of alcohol) and if that data was released, it would be extremely damaging to the brand. ie: tracking companies don’t want to know, or capture, you’re extraordinary activities. Even having the data in their possession is dangerous to them. It presents them with a liability. Advertisers don’t want them even to collect it. For exactly that reason.
Advertisers See The World As Groups Not Individuals
Advertisers do not care about you as an individual, or your personal information. They are statisticians. They care about groups. They care about aggregates. About large groups of people doing similar things. They care that of all the people who hit MSN.com, or the NYT or Conde Nast, which kind of things are most of them interested in hearing about? They care about measuring the effect of their ads. They care that if you saw one ad in one place, where else can they show it to you to reinforce it? Because the more targeted the advertisement, the more interested you are, the more times they can show it to you in the hope of making an impression, then the cheaper it is, the more effective it is, and the less chance they will alienate someone by showing them something that they don’t like, while paying dearly for the opportunity to offend someone.
They do care about your email. Because if they have your email, they can advertise directly to you. But they know that if they don’t ask permission, you will literally hate them for invading your privacy, and that will hurt their brand. Email crosses the line into privacy for most people, because you can’t shut out advertising that you don’t want. Email is personal. But traffic measurement isn’t stealing your time, or filling your inbox. It’s invisible.
The current level of cluelessness among advertisers and marketers on how to use this traditional data and traditional advertising strategy on the web, is not clear to the public. Advertisers have not figured out exactly what to do about the decline in traditional media, and the kind of advertising that has been successful in the past, They don’t know how to advertise to you on the internet. They aren’t sure if it’s good money or bad. They know you want content that helps you make buying decisions. But they aren’t sure how to make you aware of new products and services. Or even if they need to make you aware of them.
Tracking Is A Social Good?
So to some degree, you’re doing yourself, and society in general a favor. Society needs advertising not only to help fuel the economy, but to simply help us be aware of our choices. If these people collect enough ‘traffic data’ (data about what you view, not about you yourself) then they will build enough information so that they can tell you about what you want to know, not what you don’t want to know.
Personally, I would love it, if all the advertising I saw, was about those things I really want to know, but miss out on because there is no way to advertise them to me. For example, a small italian suit designer, or an interesting watch maker, or a small b&b in the Lake District, or a new local Porsche mechanic, or even Proctor and Gamble’s new products, or Crest White Strips, or the WSJ, or Precor Fitness Equipment, or Starbucks to reach me with a sincere sounding and useful message using existing mass market channels. It would simply be too expensive. and it’s not that I don’t want to know about all those things. I do. I just never, ever want to hear about weight loss, or, feminine protection, or a new pharmaceutical, or local football jerseys or sales at Sears, or discounts at Target, or any of the other things that are very relevant to other people and completely annoying wastes of time to me.
Advertising is only bad when you don’t want it. And unless you help advertisers understand what you want, you’re going to continue getting what you don’t: stuff that’s irrelevant, and sometimes offensive to your sensibilities. Tracking your behavior lets advertisers target you with the right kinds of ads, and to keep up with your changing tastes and interests.
So, tracking isn’t a privacy issue. It’s a public good. (Really.)
– An Advertising Agency CEO.
(We don’t do tracking. We just don’t think it’s useful to mislead people about tracking either.)