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Will Transparency Trump Secrecy In The Digital Age?

By - March 22, 2012

Next week I travel to Washington DC.  While I am meeting with a wide swath of policymakers, thinkers, and lobbyists, I don’t have a well-defined goal – I’m not trying to convince anyone of my opinion on any particular issue (though certainly I’m sure I’ll have some robust debates), nor am I trying to pull pungent quotes from political figures for my book. Rather I am hoping to steep in the culture of the place, make a number of new connections, and perhaps discover a bit more about how this unique institution called “the Federal Government” really works.

To prepare, I’ve been reading a fair number of books, including Larry Lessig’s Republic Lost, which I reviewed last month, and The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain, which I reviewed last year.

Wikileaks And the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry is the latest policy-related book to light up my Kindle. I finished it four weeks ago, but travel and conferences have gotten in the way of my writing it up here. But given I’ve already moved on to Lessig’s updated Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 (highly recommended), and am about to dive into McKinnon’s new book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom, I figured I better get something up, and quick. I’m way behind on my writing about my reading, so to speak.

Sifry’s book turns on this question, raised early in the work: “Is Wikileaks a symptom of decades of governmental and institutional opacity, or is it a disease that needs to be stopped at all costs?”

Put another way, if we kill Wikileaks (as many on both the left and right wish we would), what do we lose in the process?

Sifry argues that for all its flaws (including that of its founder and mercurial leader Julian Assange, who Sifry has met), Wikileaks – or at least what Wikileaks represents, is proving a crucial test of democracy in an age where our most powerful institutions are  increasingly unaccountable.

Sifry argues that the rise (and potential fall) of Wikileaks heralds an “age of transparency,” one that can’t come fast enough, given the digital tools of control increasingly in the hands of our largest social institutions, both governmental and corporate (not to mention religious). And while it’s easy to fall into conspiratorial whispers given the subject, Sifry wisely does not – at least, not too much. He clearly has a point of view, and if you don’t agree with it, I doubt his book will change your mind. But it’s certainly worth reading, if your mind is open.

Sifry’s core argument: We can’t trust institutions if that trust doesn’t come with accountability. To wit:

“We should be demanding that the default setting for institutional power be “open,” and when needed those same powers should be forced to argue when things need to remain closed. Right now, the default setting is “closed.”

Sifry gives an overview of the Wikileaks case, and points out the US government’s own position of hypocrisy:

“If we promote the use of the Internet to overturn repressive regimes around the world, then we have to either accept the fact that these same methods may be used against our own regime—or make sure our own policies are beyond reproach.”

Sifry is referring to Wikileaks much covered release of State department cables, which has been condemned by pretty much the entire power structure of the US government (Assange and others face serious legal consequences, which are also detailed in the book). Even more chilling was the reaction by corporate America, which quickly closed ranks and cut off Wikileaks’ funding sources (Visa, Mastercard, Paypal) and server access (Amazon).

In short, Wikileaks stands accused, but not proven guilty. But from the point of view of large corporations eager to stay in the good graces of government, Wikileaks is guilty till proven innocent. And that’s a scary precedent. As Sifry puts it:

“If WikiLeaks can be prosecuted and convicted for its acts of journalism, then the foundations of freedom of the press in America are in serious trouble.”

and, quoting scholar Rebecca McKinnon:

“Given that citizens are increasingly dependent on privately owned spaces for our politics and public discourse … the fight over how speech should be governed in a democracy is focused increasingly on questions of how private companies should or shouldn’t control speech conducted on and across their networks and platforms.”

But not all is lost. Sifry also chronicles a number of examples of how institutional misconduct has been uncovered and rectified by organizations similar to Wikileaks. Sifry believes that the Wikileaks genie is out of the bottle, and that transparency will ultimately win over secrecy.

But the book is a statement of belief, rather than a proof. Sifry argues that the open culture of the Internet must trump the closed, control-oriented culture of power-wielding institutions. And while I certainly agree with him, I also share his clear anxiety about whether such a world will actually come to be.

 

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Republic Lost by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

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The Yin and Yang of Audience

By - March 15, 2012

(image) The Signal San Francisco conference is less than a week away, so I thought I’d take the time to explain my reasoning for the theme, and offer a curtain raiser of sorts on the day-long program. (PS, I have ten, and only ten, half price tickets available. Hit this link, and use the code “luckyday.”)

The theme, a portion of which is the title of this post, is “The Yin and Yang of Audience, Platforms and the Independent Web.” I do get a few eyes a-rollin’ when I frame conference themes, but hey, I can only do what I know how to do. I actually think pretty hard about this stuff, and like to take the time to outline the ideas behind the program.

So here goes. As readers know, I’ve been thinking out loud a lot about the future of the Internet, and whether the rise of “walled gardens” like Facebook and Apple’s iOS (what I call AppWorld) are ultimately the future the web. My short answer is yes….and. By that I mean that the Internet, which began as an open, gatekeeper-free platform where anyone could hang a shingle, will ultimately interconnect with these walled gardens – there’s just too much value in what I call the “ecosystem approach” for the opposite to occur. I framed two major forces driving the Internet today: The independent web (sites unaffiliated with major platforms like Google or Facebook), and the dependent web (major platforms which create a valuable “logged in” experience that changes “depending” on who you are.).

It’s our thesis that these two forces are “interdependent:”  Each depends on the other. Hence the theme.

Wikipedia defines “Yin Yang” this way:

“Yin and yang” is used to describe how polar opposites or seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other in turn. Opposites thus only exist in relation to each other.

At Signal SF, we have an extraordinary lineup of speakers from both the platform world (LinkedIn, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft) as well as from independent publishers and service providers (Federated Media, Girl’s Gone Child, Automattic, Lijit). And of course, we have the marketers and agencies responsible for bringing these worlds together in service of their brands (Levi Strauss, AKQA,  Quantcast, Intel, Neilsen). Not to mention some really interesting startups like Instagram, One King’s Lane, PinWheel, TasteMakerX, ShareThis, and MarketShare.

In today’s marketing world, brands need to take an integrated approach to digital marketing – connecting both the passion, federated scale, and community of the independent web with the power of major dependent web services like Facebook, Google, and others. (It’s why I chose the image above for this post – put your roots in the independent web, and let your voice be heard and circulate throughout the whole Internet…)

It promises to be an engaging and smart discussion, and I hope you’ll join us for it. You can register here, or, if you’re an FM partner, email me (jbat at federatedmedia dot net), and I’ll make sure to swing you a pass. See you there!

CM Summit White Paper from 2007

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I am in the midst of writing a post on the history of FM (update – here it is), and I thought it’d be fun to post the PDF linked to below. It’s a summary of musings from Searchblog circa 2006-7 on the topic of conversational media, which is much in the news again, thanks to Facebook. We created the document as an addendum to our first ever CM Summit conference, as a way of describing why we were launching the conference. (BTW, the Summit returns to San Francisco next week as Signal SF, check it out.)

It’s interesting to see the topics in the white paper come to life, including chestnuts like “Conversation Over Dictation,” “Platform Over Distribution,” “Engagement Over Consumption,” and “Iteration and Speed Over Perfection and Deliberation.”

Enjoy.

CMManifesto2007.01

LinkedIn, The Media Company?

By - March 13, 2012

Quick, what’s LinkedIn? If you’re like me, the first thing that comes to mind is “a professional social network.” Perhaps “a place to get a job, or find someone to fill a job.” Or maybe “the place my professional resume lives.” And certainly “a very successful Internet IPO.”

But over the two years or so, LinkedIn has quietly built itself into a significant media business. It’s added a newsfeed, status updates, and “top stories today” features. Late last month, it added “following”  as well. And I’ve begun to notice the LinkedIn share button popping up all over the web – it isn’t quite the attention engine that Twitter has become, but its power is rising. (Yep, I’ve got one on this site too).

All those media bells and whistles combine to create a robust advertising business, complete with a Facebook-like self service platform driven by your social graph. That business has been scaling right along with its core recruitment and jobs posting revenue, accounting for about a third of the company’s topline.  Given that LinkedIn added more members last year than in the prior 6 – about 60 million, for a global total of 150 million, I predict it won’t be long before LinkedIn becomes a “must buy” for any marketer who targets professionals. And that’s a lot of marketers.

It doesn’t hurt that the business has been killing it – beating Wall Street expectations and outperforming most recent Internet IPOs.

The man steering LinkedIn, CEO Jeff Weiner, will join me onstage next week at our Signal San Francisco show. We’ll have one of our trademark conversations, and I’m inviting you to help me interview him. Given Signal focuses on the media and marketing business, we’ll certainly cover off on that part of Weiner’s purview.  But what else might you want to hear from Weiner? He’s always a fun interview, and usually shares very candid opinions of other players in the Internet ecosystem (he was a top executive at Yahoo and Warner Brothers prior to joining LinkedIn).

Join us at Signal to hear Jeff, along with a killer lineup that includes Adam Bain, President of Global Revenue at Twitter, Tom Bedecarre, CEO of AKQA, Michele DiLorenzo, CEO of Jumptime, Konrad Feldman, CEO of Quantcast, Ross Levinsohn, EVP Yahoo, Alison Pincus, CEO of One Kings Lane, Kevin Systrom, CEO of Instagram, Tina Sharkey, CEO of BabyCenter, and many, many others. It’s a wonderful group, so register now!

Who Controls Our Data? A Puzzle.

By - March 11, 2012

(image) Facebook claims the data we create inside Facebook is ours – that we own it. In fact, I confirmed this last week in an interview with Facebook VP David Fischer on stage at FM’s Signal P&G conference in Cincinnati. In the conversation, I asked Fischer if we owned our own data. He said yes.

Perhaps unfairly  (I’m pretty sure Fischer is not in charge of data policy), I followed up my question with another: If we own our own data, can we therefore take it out of Facebook and give it to, say, Google, so Google can use it to personalize our search results?

Fischer pondered that question, realized its implications, and backtracked. He wasn’t sure about that, and it turns out, it’s more complicated to answer that question – as recent stories about European data requests have revealed.*

I wasn’t planning on asking Fischer that question, but I think it came up because I’ve been pondering the implications of “you as the platform” quite a bit lately. If it’s *our* data in Facebook, why can’t we take it and use it on our terms to inform other services?

Because, it turns out, regardless of any company’s claim around who owns the data, the truth is, even if we could take our data and give it to another company, it’s not clear the receiving company could do anything with it. Things just aren’t set up that way. But what if they were?

The way things stand right now, our data is an asset held by companies, who then cut deals with each other to leverage that data (and, in some cases, to bundle it up as a service to us as consumers). Microsoft has a deal to use our Facebook data on Bing, for example. And of course, the inability of Facebook and Google to cut a data sharing deal back in 2009 is one of the major reasons Google built Google+. The two sides simply could not come to terms, and that failure has driven an escalating battle between major Internet companies to lock all of us into their data silos. With the cloud, it’s only getting worse (more on that in another post).

And it’s not fair to just pick on Facebook. The question should be asked of all services, I think. At least, of all services which claim that the data we give that service is, in fact, ours (many services share ownership, which is fine with me, as long as I don’t lose my rights.)

I have a ton of pictures up on Instagram now, for example (you own your own content there, according to the service’s terms). Why can’t I “share” that data with Google or Bing, so those pictures show up in my searches? Or with Picasa, where I store most of my personal photographs?

I have a ton of data inside an app called “AllSport GPS,” which tracks my runs, rides, and hikes. Why can’t I share that with Google, or Facebook, or some yet-to-be-developed app that monitors my health and well being?

Put another way, why do I have to wait for all these companies to cut data sharing deals through their corporate development offices? Sure, I could cut and paste all my data from one to the other, but really, who wants to do that?!

In the future, I hope we’ll be our own corp dev offices. An office of one, negotiating data deals on the fly, and on our own terms. It’ll take a new architecture and a new approach to sharing, but I think it’d open up all sorts of new vectors of value creation on the web.

This is why I’m bullish on Singly and the Locker Project. They’re trying to solve a very big problem, and worse, one that most folks don’t even realize they have. Not an easy task, but an important one.

—–

*Thanks to European law, Facebook is making copies of users’ data available to them – but it makes exemptions that protect its intellectual property, trade secrets, and it won’t give data that “cannot be extracted from our platform in the absence of is proportionate effort.” What defines Facebook’s “trade secrets” and “intellectual property”? Well, there’s the catch. Just as with Google’s search algorithms, disclosure of the data Facebook is holding back would, in essence, destroy Facebook’s competitive edge, or so the company argues. Catch 22. I predict we’re going to see all this tested by services like Singly in the near future. 

 

On the State of Twitter Advertising: Adam Bain

By - March 06, 2012

Last week I wrote a post about Neal Mohan, who will be joining us for this month’s Signal conference in San Francisco. Today I’m focusing on Adam Bain and his role as President, Global Revenue at Twitter.

I’ve known Adam for some time, since his days at Fox Interactive Media, where he built Fox’s advertising platform (initially as a product out of MySpace). He joined Twitter a year and a half ago, and since then, has overseen the development of its “promoted” suite of products. Just recently, Twitter has expanded its roll out of what CEO Dick Costolo calls its “atomic unit” of advertising, the Promoted Tweet, to its mobile base, a significant move mirrored by Facebook at nearly the same time. It’s also opened up a self-service portal to its ad machine, a crucial move that drove early adoption of search and Facebook advertising.

When you are in charge of revenue for a company valued at $8 billion, the heat is on – the estimated $140 million or so Twitter pulled in last year ain’t gonna cut it. The company needs to scale its advertising platform to Google and Facebook levels, in terms of efficiency, response, and return on marketing investment. That’s no easy feat. In fact, it’s only been done a few times – by Facebook, Google, and arguably Overture (before Yahoo’s purchase and subsequent deal with Microsoft).

Hence last week’s Journal piece on Twitter’s attempts to woo ad giant P&G – the Journal argues that to get to billions in revenue, Twitter has to get companies like P&G to see the service as an “upfront” partner – the kind of company P&G spends with year after year.

The company has work to do, but is confident it’s figured out a path that will justify its lofty valuation. At the SF Signal conference, I’ll have a chance to sit down with Adam and discuss that path, as well as any number of other issues of interest. My question to you all – what do you think those items might be? Comments welcome, and if you’re wondering whether to come to Signal, please, register now! We’ve got quite the lineup, and we’re close to sold out.

 

Why Hath Google Forsaken Us? A Meditation.

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(image) Here’s a short overview of Google’s past few months: It’s angered policymakers and pundits with a sweeping change to its privacy settings. It’s taken a beating for favoring its own properties in its core search results. It’s been caught with its hands in Apple’s cookie jar, and despite the fact Facebook and others previously condoned the practice, it was savaged for doing so. It’s continuing to fight an expensive and uncertain patent war. And its blinkered focus on beating Facebook - a company which, at its core, couldn’t be more different philosophically – has caused many to wonder….What on earth has happened to the Google we once knew?

Has it abandoned its principles of supporting the open web, data liberation, and doing no evil? Is Google turning into … another walled garden?

Well, those are questions I’ve been pondering for a while now, and I think I have an answer, or at least, some reasonable speculation as to an answer.

Here’s the short version of the answer: Google is playing for the long term, but it feels it has no choice but to make these moves now. It’s in a “rip off the band aid” phase of the game.

The longer version goes something like this: Google had identified a central and existential threat to its future, and that threat is….us. Or rather, the fact that Google doesn’t have a direct relationship with us, in the way Apple or Facebook does.

Think about it. When you use Facebook, you’re always logged in, and your identity and relationships – to others, to content, to apps and services – are assets Facebook can use to customize your experience (oh, and your ads). You then take that identity and those relationships, and you promiscuously spread them around the web, logging into any number of services through Facebook’s Open Graph, giving Facebook an even deeper sense of who you are, what you consume, and what you “like.” You happily give Facebook terabytes of structured data about yourself, content with the implicit tradeoff that Facebook is going to give you a social service that makes your life better.

And anytime Facebook wants to change how it might use all that data about you, in any way, across any service it has within the Facebook ecosystem, all it has to do is change one privacy policy, tell you about it, and that’s that.

Oh, and did you know that Facebook changes the code underlying its services on a daily, if not hourly basis? Have you ever asked Facebook to get your approval for those changes, or for details on how they might effect you, or whether you can go back to using an earlier version of Facebook? Of course not. And when was the last time you read Facebook’s privacy policy? OK, if you read Searchblog, you probably have read it, at least once. Most folks? Nah. We trust Facebook to not do stupid things, if it does, we’ll just leave. Right?

Now think about Apple. For those of us who use its iPhone, iPad, iPod, and/or iTunes and other products, Apple has a complete picture of both our identity, and our relationship to Apple services (like iTunes, iCloud, iPhoto, MobileMe, etc.) as well as to the huge universe of apps on its devices. It also has a few hundred million of our credit card numbers, something Facebook can only dream of having (don’t worry, Facebook is working on that).

Oh, and when Apple wants to push a new version of iOS, its operating system, it simply does it. You might take the time to read the documentation as to what changed since the last operating system, but I doubt it. Like most of us, you just accept the update, because you don’t want your phone to stop working. Right?

Ditto for Apple’s terms of service and privacy policies. Have you ever read them? Really? Then you’re in a very small minority. Most of us don’t bother, because we trust Apple – like with Facebook, we figure if they do something that really pisses us off, we’ll drop them for an alternative. Right?

Finally, let’s think about our relationship with Google, circa mid 2011, before Google+ was introduced. For most of us, Google meant search, and the majority of us used search anonymously – we weren’t logged in. Google has been working on getting us to “personalize” search by logging in for years, but that only solved part of its problem. Hundreds of millions of us also used other Google products – Picasa for photos, YouTube for culture fixes, Gmail for communication, Blogger for expression, Maps, Docs, and lord knows what else for productivity. Not to mention, hundreds of millions more of us started using Chrome and Android.

Now, before Google+, every single one of those services had its own set of policies, its own approach to identity management, and its own vast data silos. It was one big hot holy mess, from Google’s point of view. As customers, we saw Google as one brand, but the truth is, we used its various services as if each came from a different company.

And that meant Google couldn’t compete with Apple or Facebook when it came to any number of crucial factors. It had no single point of reference for communicating with its customers. It had no way to link its services and provide  consistent updates, policy changes, or shared uses (would you like to integrate your Picasa photos into your Google search results? Sorry bud, I don’t know who you are, you’re out of luck!).

And this created one Very Big Problem for Larry Page & Co: Google couldn’t be elegant, or design driven, or easy to use. And we consumers have proven that we really, really want those things in our web services. That’s why Apple is winning. It’s why Facebook is winning. And it’s why Google was desperately afraid that it was about to lose.

So Google held its nose, built Google+ as its connective tissue, and plunged into a world of pain. It’s not over yet, but the game is afoot. Google is in the process of becoming Apple- and Facebook-like in its relationship to us.

Does that mean that Google will become Apple and Facebook? Time will tell, but my suspicion is no. And as much as I’d like to say the reason is high-minded, I think it’s more about competitive positioning. The people I know at Google really believe in the open web. They believe in data portability. And they believe in supporting an ecosystem that isn’t entirely under Google’s control. It’s that open-web ecosystem that created Google (and Facebook, and Apple, for that matter). And I think Google sees an end game – once it has direct, meaningful relationships with its customers, it believes it will be seen as the most open and accommodative player amongst the Internet Big Five. It will compete on policy and data use, and it believes it will win on those points. It will provide alternatives to Facebook and Apple, and it believes those alternatives will prove more consumer friendly over time.

At least, I hope that’s what Google believes….for now, there’s much work to be done. The integration of its privacy policy is step one. The next step is to provide a better privacy dashboard than Facebook currently does (Facebook, to its credit, has come a long, long way here. Apple? Not so much. I can’t find a dashboard for privacy settings anywhere). Then, Google must take another plunge, and allow us to use our data any way we want, both inside and outside of Google’s services. The more open Google proves to be over time, the more customers it will win in the long term. Oh, and then it has to figure out how to link Android to all of this (good luck with that one…).

Apple and Facebook have already shown themselves to have a philosophy of domain-specificity: everything works great, as long as you’re within their controlled domains. Building an open web alternative to that approach is messy, it’s painful, and it sometimes appears to contradict Google’s core principles. But I believe, in the end, it’s what Google is trying to do.

I shudder to think of an opposite outcome – where Google begins to act just like its main competitors. It could happen – and many of you have given up on the company doing anything but just that. But I think the world needs an alternative, and there are precious few companies with the heft and motivation to create one. In fact, there’s really just one…at least, for now.

On The State of Google’s Advertising Business: Neal Mohan at Signal SF

By - February 29, 2012

If you’ve been reading Searchblog, you know I’ve been writing quite a bit about Google, privacy, and the advertising business. All of those topics are going to be coming together in my interview with Neal Mohan, VP Product at Google, on the Signal SF stage next month.

Neal oversees display and mobile advertising for Google, and works directly with the company’s entire advertising stack, a formidable lineup of products that include the Doubleclick ad server and exchange businesses, AdSense, the Invite Media demand side platform, the pending AdMeld supply side platform, AdMob, and much more. Given the tempests over Google’s integration of its privacy policies, the integration of Google+ into Google search, and Google’s circumvention of Apple’s Safari browser, it’s bound to be quite a conversation.

Register for Signal:SF here (we’re closing in on a sell out), and please leave any questions or comments you might have for Neal below. I’ll be listening and integrating your input. Also, below are a few more links for you to peruse on the topic of Google and its advertising business (as well as that of its main competitor now, Facebook).

Risk and Riches in User Data for Facebook (NYT)

Google: Calling Our Ad System Closed is ‘Ridiculous’ (Digiday)

Search Still Drives Google, but Display Ads a $5 Billion Business (AdAge)

New Display Ad Push Adds to Bag of Tricks (WSJ)

Study Finds News Sites Fail to Aim Ads at Users (NYT)

Google to Pass Facebook in Display Ads in 2013: eMarketer (eWeek)

‘Do Not Track’ won’t halt data flow (Boston Globe)

Google On Defensive Yet Again In Snafu Over Ad-Tracking In Safari Browsers (paidContent)

Google sugarcoated privacy policy changes to mislead users, group charges (ZDnet)

A Sad State of Internet Affairs (Searchblog)

Facebook News (Livestream): The Brand Spaces Are Bigger, Bolder, More…Ad Like

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Facebook is holding it’s first ever “fMC” today – that’s Facebook Marketing Conference, and it’s announcing widely expected new ad formats. From the release just sent to me:

Today, Facebook announced a new design for Pages, giving brands and businesses more ways to tell their story. The redesigned Pages are more personalized and complementary to the look and feel of individual profiles. Now, when you visit a Page, you can see your friends’ interactions with that Page as friend activity, making the experience more dynamic and relevant for Facebook users.

Highlights of other new features include:
· Pinned posts keep important stories at the top of a Page timeline for up to seven days.
· The new admin panel makes it easy for Page administrators to track their performance and to respond to private messages from people.
· Larger stories, milestones, and Page Timeline. The new Page design allows Page owners to tell richer stories through bigger photos and milestones that can include a date and other content.

 

The company is livestreaming its announcements, which are slated to begin right about now (10 AM PST). Here’s the livestream:

Watch live streaming video from fbmarketingtalks at livestream.com

A Funny Thing Happened As I Was “Tracked”

By - February 27, 2012

I’m still in recovery mode after the wave of Apple-defenders inundated me with privacy-related comments over this past weekend, and I promise to continue the dialog – and admit where I may be wrong – once I feel I’ve properly grokked the story. The issue of privacy as it relates to the Intenet is rather a long piece of yarn, and I’m only a small part of the way toward unraveling this particular sweater. (And yes, I know there are plenty of privacy absolutists rolling their eyes at me right now, but if you don’t want to hear my views after some real reporting and thinking on the subject, just move along….). lf you want to peruse some of the recent stories on the subject I’ve been reading, you can start with the Signal post I just finished.

Meanwhile, I want to tell you a little story about advertising and tracking, which is at the heart of much of the current tempest.

While skiing last week at my home mountain of Mammoth (the only place in California with a decent snowpack), my family and I stayed at a Westin property. It’s a relatively new place, and pretty nice for Mammoth – which is more of  a “throw the kids in the station wagon and drive up” kind of resort. It’s not exactly Vail or Aspen – save for the skiing, which I dare say rivals any mountain in the US.

Anyway, I stayed at the Westin, as as such, I visited the Westin site many a time during my stay for various reasons (I also visited before I came, of course, to research stuff like whether it had a gym, restaurant menus, and the like).

Now, besides visiting the Westin site while at Mammoth, I also visited Amazon.com, because I was looking to buy a particular adapter for my SIM card. I’m eager to try out the new Nexus Galaxy, but the SIM in my iPhone is a different size, and to use it in the Nexus, I need an adapter.

I didn’t end up buying the adapter, because I got distracted, but I did visit Amazon’s page for the device.

Now, why am I telling you all this? Because after visiting those two sites (Westin and Amazon), I noticed the ads I was seeing as I cruised the web changed. A lot. In particular, on my own site, which is powered by the company I chair, FM:

The ad at the top is from Amazon, with a picture of the very thing I almost bought. Now, is that creepy, or is that useful?

The ad on the side is from Westin, offering me a free night or $500 credit if I book another Westin vacation. Again, creepy, or …potentially a benefit?

This is “tracking” at work, and while some of us find it creepy, I find it rather benign. Both those ads are very pertinent to *me*, and one (the Westin) might even save me a lot of money – I love the idea of getting a free night at a place I’ve already stayed at and enjoyed (and I am a Starwood member, and stay at a lot of other Westins, so heck, I might just use that offer sometime soon).

Regardless of those specifics, it’s hard to argue that these ads are *worse* than the undifferentiated slop that once filled up ad space across the web. And that’s pretty much the point of cookie-driven advertising – that it use our data to offer up marketing messages that are, in the end, better than if the advertisers didn’t have the data in the first place.

After all, Facebook and Google offer up exactly the same kind of ads on their owned and operated domains – ads that are relevant to you – based on data you provided to them (the search term, or your Facebook profile). Somehow that’s OK, but when it’s done across the open web – well, then it’s “creepy.”

The problem, I think, is that we generally don’t trust these third-party advertising networks – we think they are doing nefarious things with our data, somehow screwing us, tracking us like hunted animals, creating vast profiles that could fall into the wrong hands. And the ad industry needs to address this issue of trust.

If you look at both those ads, it turns out the industry is doing just that. Each of the ads have an “ad choices” logo you can click to find out what’s going on behind the ad. Here’s what I saw when I clicked on Amazon’s “privacy” link:

This page clearly explains why I’m seeing the ad, and offers me an explicit choice to opt out of seeing ads like this in the future. Seems fair to me.

Here’s what I see when I clicked on the “ad choices” logo for the Westin ad:

That’s a popover, telling me that my browsing activity (I assume my multiple visits to Westin.com) has informed the offer. It tells me that an ad network owned by Akamai is behind the tracking and trafficking of the ad. And it offers me more links, should I want to learn more. I clicked on the “More information & opt out options” link, and saw this from Evidon,which Akamai uses to power its opt out and other programs:

This page offers a prominent opt out for the companies who served me the ad. it even offers a link to Ghostery, a service which I’ve used in the past to track who’s dropping cookies and such on my browser.

Now, I’m not arguing that this system is perfect, but it’s certainly quite a step forward from where we were a year ago.

And no, I didn’t opt out of anything. Not because I founded an Independent web advertising and content company (FM), but because frankly, I think the ads I’m getting are better as a result of this ecosystem. And I’m getting benefits I wouldn’t have had before (a free night at the Westin, a reminder to go get that SIM adapter I hadn’t yet bought). And, frankly, because this is all happening on the Independent web, insuring that small sites like mine get a chance to benefit from the same kind of value that Facebook and Google already have as “first party” websites – the value of my data. (More on this point in later posts, I am sure).

Now, if these companies end up doing evil, wrongheaded, or plain stupid things with my data, I’m going to be the first to opt out. And there’s plenty more we have to do to get this ecosystem right. But I thought it instructive to lay out how it’s working so far. And so far, I don’t find it anything but benign, if not actually useful. What do you think?