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?