“The Sell-Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.
Today’s column is written by Jim Spanfeller, CEO of Spanfeller Media Group, a new-age media company.
As the news about the U.S. government’s Prism program attracts full-blown global attention, raising questions about our privacy and our safety, I think it’s a good time to re-examine the ongoing debate around third-party tracking cookies and their value to end users.
I’ve long said that the answer to the online advertiser tracking debate (like many other things in ad tech) hinges on transparency. The population is generally smart enough to decide what is appropriate and what is not. When faced with clear choices, they will almost always let you know what they really want and what they think is right.
In the case of PRISM, of course, transparency is a far more complex issue. The government would have us believe that it needs to keep these programs secret so that our adversaries cannot take countermeasures to overcome these “safeguards.”
That argument, which is likely to be the subject of awfully interesting debate for quite some time, obviously doesn’t apply to advertiser tracking. The last time I checked, the choice of serving me a peanut butter ad or an automotive ad had very little to do with keeping my community, city or country safe from an imminent life-threatening attack.
And yet, in some ways, the advertising industry acts like the government has with PRISM, choosing secrecy over transparency when collecting consumer information.
I think the vast majority of marketers, advertising agencies, and publishers have long had a sense of which practices are generally known and acceptable, and which are unknown and perhaps unacceptable. It comes down to common sense. But we’ve chosen to not ask questions because we’re afraid of what the answers might be. And at times, we have taken this fear to absurd levels.
Several months ago, when Microsoft offered “Do Not Track” as a default setting in its new version of Internet Explorer, we as an industry responded by saying that this did not represent choice and, as such, we were going to ignore all “Do Not Track” signals. It’s hard to reconcile the action with the argument; turning off the setting by default certainly doesn’t offer consumers any more or less choice than having the “Do Not Track” default setting buried in the user interface and set by default in the off position. Dealing with Microsoft’s decision by simply ignoring it was the very height of hubris. These types of policies can only work for a short period of time.
Case in point: As a direct result of the industry’s stance on DNT, the Hill renewed its efforts to introduce legislation around web tracking. If the implications weren’t so serious, we could make all sorts of comical references here to what is happening on the much more important scale with PRISM.
God forbid we, as an industry, find ourselves in the same place that the government does now. No matter what the answers are, not asking the questions in the first place – and not being completely transparent – could ultimately yield results exponentially worse than whatever small gains we think we get by keeping folks in the dark. What’s more, we would have no ground to stand on when asked why we didn’t ask the questions in the first place. Consumer behavior tracking is hardly a matter of national security. That said, it very well could matter greatly to a percentage of people in our society on a personal basis.
Maybe end users will prove to be just fine with what is currently happening behind the scenes. The point is that we need to ask them. And given what is going on in the greater landscape, with all of the potential fallout around privacy from PRISM, I think we should do this as soon as possible.