Fellow Digital Marketers: Have We Become The Enemies of Privacy?

Privacy is very important to me. Call it a typical Boomer trait, or something else. I don’t care. But I am also a believer that the bills have to be paid. And in a digital environment in which consumers are not willing to pay for most content, we need to recognize that 80 cent untargeted CPMs are not going to pay for the array of content types consumers want.

Concepts like BT are essentially a trade off of better content for our non PII behavior data points. Some would call that an aspect of privacy. And certainly some people worry, rather understandably I might add, that in an environment of government “guidelines” you can drive a truck through, it’s challenging to believe that companies will always behave honorably.

I like the idea of the NAI — of companies making a concerted effort to set some standards that are clearer than the squishy FTC stuff, which it appears was written to provide everything short of actual standards.

But the problem with ONLY self regulation is that not all companies are in the NAI, and the potential for abuses is very high when there is no set-in-stone set of rules, the violation of which would yield jail time.

Frankly, I want some jail time rules. I want a set of rules that governs disclosure so that we know the limits of technologies, policies, and processes that drive ROI. And I want to see people who end up doing things that are against such laws end up behind bars. Because the stakes are too high to let self regulation govern what could well be gross violations of privacy.

I am not a lawyer, but it is my understanding that many jurists, particularly of the sort appointed by Republicans, who do not feel that the US Constitution provides privacy protections beyond those enumerated in the Bill of Rights. A document, I remind you, that was authored more than 200 years ago when the most advanced information source was a four page broadsheet newspaper. SO I would LOVE a privacy law that put that sort of thinking in check.

The sort of laws I seek would define what disclosure means in an opt-out scenario.
The sort of laws I seek would outlaw the collection of an enumerated set of sensitive information categories. Health, DNA, identity, legal behaviors, etc.
The sort of laws I seek would govern HOW data are collected.
The sort of laws I seek would govern how long information can be stored.
The sort of laws I seek would make it illegal to take acceptable forms of non PII and use them to reverse engineer PII.

There was and is some talk of such laws in Washington. I am not optimistic that that talk will continue after the election. But perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised.

But let’s go a little deeper — returning to the title of this post. I was recently at a panel discussion in which four industry leaders communicated four ideas that I found disturbing when they were juxtaposed in the three minutes or so it took to communicate all of them:

1. BT does not add value consumers understand. Targeted ads are not a consumer meaningful benefit.
2. BT does add value, consumers just could never ever ever ever ever see it. So Opt-In would never work.
3. Consumers are becoming mroe tolerant of cookies and other forms of tracking.
4. If consumers knew we were collecting the info we are collecting, they would be terrified. So, in the context of BT, we actually take steps NOT to target consumers as precisely as we can.

The bundle disturbed me individually as well as collectively.

1. I agree that targeted ads have no consumer value in most cases.
2. I take issue with the idea that consumers are stupid, or that the indirect value of free content is a concept that is beyond their understanding.
3. I think consumers hate all this tracking. You can show me all the studies you want that dispute this. As a researcher I assure you that someone could create a study that proved ANYTHING a company or organization wanted proven. You have to look at who is paying for a study, and how the questions were worded.
4. The deception in the fourth sentence is precisely the reason why consumers don’t trust all this tracking.

Collectively the statements seem contradictory, and yet they appear to be the tenets of our industry.

And the underlying deception in these statements is repugnant in a world where we constantly talk about the need for transparency online.

Transparency works. Which, in my book, means that someone should be able to develop an opt-in model that gives consumers so much value that they will be happy to offer up information for the components of value that they desire. Consumers would opt in if they really could make INFORMED choices about what was traded with whom.

And until we meet that challenge, we are going to see a lot more companies and technologies go the way of NebuAd, which spent a lot of VC money on a model that is DOA. Because consumers ARE smart enough to recognize something wrong when they see it. And because companies have to make choices in very squishy arenas when there are no actual, you know, rules to live by.

Yes I get it that the world is constantly changing and that it would be nigh on impossible to make a law that would work forever. But here’s the thing. We could always change the law. Update it. Make it reflect new technologies. Just because something is hard, doesn’t mean we should walk away from the challenge. Or cede the concept of privacy, making hopeful noises about expecting people to behave honorably but doing little or nothing to define what that means exactly.

Look, companies are out to make money. Their behavior is checked by laws and regulations — stuff that defines acceptable commercial behavior.

Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to write.