In response to consumer advocate groups supporting a “Do Not Track” database (to later be ran by the FTC), AOL and Google privacy executives OK’d opting out choices for consumers. In this entry, find out why this isn’t good enough to protect your privacy and security. (And how to fix it.)
You might recall my disagreement with Web advertisement targeting and the fact that it’s discrimination and people can’t permanently “opt-out” of targeted advertisements. Consumer advocacy groups have supported the idea of a “Do Not Track” system which would be managed in the same fashion the Do Not Call list for telecommunications. As the alarms sounded at Google and AOL, AOL’s Chief Privacy Officer, Jules Polonetsky, offered his position on a Do-Not-Track list:
“One thing that doesn’t appear as effective as technological solutions is a government-run ‘do not track’ list for Web advertising, akin to the existing “do not call” list for telemarketers.”
“…the rule should be that whatever technology platform you’re using should have no-brainer, easy-to-use labels that people know how to toggle to turn on or off the kinds of personalization, storing, whatever it is that that particular platform does.”
Self-regulation is what got us to this point, where consumers can be tracked and targeted for ads without their consent. I don’t want the government regulating everything, but there has to be some entity that protects the privacy of consumers.
Opting-out has these fatal flaws:
- No one opted-in for advertisements initially. Why place an additional barrier for consumers for privacy?
- No one opts out. This is what advertising companies count on if Congress green-lights their self-regulation of the industry.
- Opting out is only lasts until the user clears their cookies, run anti-spyware software or switches computers. While I don’t have any official numbers, I can guess that provide that Web users likely flush cookies at least monthly (or less).
- Opting-out has limited enforcement. Let’s assume AOL’s ‘Platform A’ does do goodwill in respecting user’s privacy choices; what is to stop Federated Media, Fox Interactive Media or Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions from aggressively targeting consumers? Nothing.
No matter how much effort spent simplifying it, no wants to understand how targeted ads work — even if it’s hiring a cute little penguin to spread their pro-advertising propaganda. Consumers want to find organic, authentic information, they want to find relevant information without the noise/confusion from advertising.
Jules Polonetsky states there is absolutely no way to keep opt-outs permanent for consumers and wags the finger at Microsoft for not solving this technical limitation. I disagree. It seems Polonetsky forgets about the power of the AOL Screen Name Service, SNS. (Akin to the Windows Live Network.)
The AOL SNS is a series of databases with valuable information. Without compromising the proprietary details, it contains many fields for every piece of data like Name, ZIP Code, Screen Name, Password and so on. The SNS is used every time an AOL or AIM visitor accesses an AOL Web site (at least login). Surely, that database can hold a new field “NoTrack,” and there you go — an instant opt-out device. Then the advertising servers would make a simple back-end request to determine if the visitor is “trackable,” then take the right action.
Problem solved. Now, is AOL ready to toss their only asset out the window (targeted ads), yet? If so, then AOL, the largest advertising network — reaching 90% of online users, should step up the plate and bite what they chew. This would not only make a huge stride for online privacy advocacy, in that self-regulation can work, it would also offer a benefit for AOL users that their privacy is highly regarded and their information is never misused. Can Yahoo Microhoo say that?
On Polonetsky’s blog, he writes about the consumer behavior profiles [PDF warning] that Tacoda (one of AOL’s seven ad networks) profiles Web users into. I’ll save you from the PDF and just list what’s in it:
TACODA Audience Segments
At-home IT Guru
Business Decision Maker
Business IT Influencer
Die Hard Sports Fan
Motor Sports Fanatic
Real Estate Intender
Recreation Sports Fan
Now, keep in mind, this list is only from one advertising network; not the seven of them AOL has.
Did you know that AOL had a Privacy and Consumer Choice Web page? Yeah, neither did I. Anyhow, if a user somehow stumbles on there, I can’t fathom any Web user actually clicking and reading the lengthy privacy policies on the seven advertising networks. It’s completely unreasonable that AOL expects users to “learn” about their choices. The page also lacks the ability to allow users to block Omniture tracking which is AOL’s Web analytics provider. (This file is placed on all of AOL pages, have a look at it yourself.)
I got a lot of respect for Jules because he, of all other privacy advocates for a company as large as AOL, has a blog, talks about privacy, and frankly is credible. It’s not all his fault (nor should it be), but he does have enough power to pull some strings to turn AOL into a truly trustworthy, reputable, industry leader when it comes to internet advertising.
Of course, nothing prevents the now-average Web user from using Firefox and Adblock Plus to manage their own privacy. If companies won’t step up and provide better tools for online privacy, consumers will use their own tools; then you can’t monetize those users.
Do you think Opt-outs suffice for consumer advocacy? I doubt it, but I want to hear what you think — share your thoughts in the comments!