Industry Groups Mull Cookie Efforts

The online marketing world has been buzzing for the past six months over several published reports that users are deleting cookies in record numbers. Since then, industry groups have been studying the situation to determine the best way to approach the situation.

“The first step is to do our best to get clean data,” said Greg Stuart, CEO and president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). “We don’t want to try to move an industry without having a clear picture of the situation.”

Earlier this year, research companies such as Jupiter Research, Nielsen Research and Burst Media surveyed users and found between 38 and 44 percent say they regularly delete cookies. Another study by InsightExpress found polling customers may not be the most accurate way to measure cookie deletion. That study found 56 percent of 800 users surveyed say they deleted cookies monthly. But when those same users were asked to demonstrate how they deleted cookies, only a third of the group was actually able to do so.

“In our talks with publishers, we’re finding that it’s much less of an issue than some of these reports would have us believe,” Stuart said.

The IAB is currently working with publishers to gather information to determine the extent of cookie deletion. The IAB has also created a task force to consider next steps. That group met for the first time last month, and will eventually decide what form the group’s initiatives will take.

Though it’s too early to say what that may be, it will likely include some policy moves to set industry guidelines, as well as consumer and industry education to eliminate misunderstandings about the nature of cookies.

“Cookies in themselves are innocuous. The issues only come with the way people use the technology,” Stuart said. “One of the things you can do in a situation like this is identify best practices. I would expect we would take a leadership role in policy decisions, as we did with pop-ups.”

The IAB was not involved with earlier legislative lobbying to protect cookies from being lumped in with spyware in a re-introduced Spy Act making its way through the U.S. Congress in January. Other groups, including the Online Publishers Association (OPA), took a leadership role in that effort.

The bill originally included cookies as an example of tracking software that would be outlawed. Lobbying by the OPA and others persuaded lawmakers to reconsider and make a clear distinction.

In the comments the OPA submitted to the House of Representatives, it explained its position; cookies themselves are harmless, and should not be lumped in with spyware.

“Cookies are text files read by a Web browser. Unlike spyware, cookies do not have the ability to log keystrokes, take over a user’s computer, change settings, or cause involuntary actions that distract a user from his or her tasks,” the OPA stated.

The OPA has raised the issue with its members. Beyond that, it doesn’t have any current plans for initiatives around the cookie deletion issue, according to Michael Zimbalist, president of the OPA.

“Everybody would like it if it didn’t happen, but I think it’s going to have a minimal impact on businesses,” Zimbalist said.

The group continues to monitor the legislative movement of the Spy Act, but Zimbalist expects the Senate’s preoccupation with a Supreme Court nominee will limit the chances of anything being done once they return for the Fall session.

Much of the outcry began when Jupiter Research revealed in early March that 40 percent of 2,337 users surveyed said they deleted cookies at least monthly. A follow-up examination of the data found those users were among the most affluent and Internet-savvy consumers — a key target for many advertisers.

Following Jupiter’s report, other research firms conducted their own surveys. Nielsen Research found in April that 44 percent of its 9,492 users surveyed deleted cookies in the past 30 days; and Burst Media reported in June that 38 percent of users surveyed said they delete cookies regularly.

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