Privacy Versus Transparency

During an interview with ClickTracks CEO John Marshall on our blog recently, the thorny issue of data privacy came up. It’s something I’ve touched on before, and it’s always a sensitive subject.

First, a disclosure. I’m not a lawyer, I never wanted to be a lawyer, and I don’t even know that many lawyers. So I’m probably treading on very thin ice when it comes to legal matters. However, in our quest to understand and influence consumer behavior (which is what we’re all trying to do, right?), there are inevitably issues and concerns about how much of what we know about someone we can use in our attempts to affect their behavior.

Some reactions to the interview on the Web Analytics Forum and on the blog itself revolved around the data privacy issues of organizations using Google Analytics. Google Analytics is in a somewhat unique position relative to other providers of hosted Web analytics services. As part getting the service at no cost, you give Google the right to use the information collected from the site. As a rule, hosted Web analytics providers don’t assert any rights over the data they collect from organizations using their services. The rights to that information belong to the service buyer. Obviously, if you collect, store, and process the data on your own servers, there aren’t any issues about information rights.

Each country or region of the world tends to have a different legal view about online data privacy, what is and isn’t acceptable. Here in the European Union, there’s a directive that states if you use cookies, for example, you have to tell people you use cookies in “clear and precise information” and you must provide information on how a user can reject the cookie.

There’s a difference, though, between minimum legal requirements and what may be considered best practices. The phenomenal worldwide adoption of Google Analytics probably means we need to review best practices for data protection and communication of that protection to consumers. This isn’t because Google’s approach to privacy issues is lax. On the contrary, it’s very explicit in its privacy policy about how it will and won’t use personal data. Also, if you look at the privacy section in Google Analytics’ terms of service, it places strict conditions on what a Web site owner can do with the Google Analytics data he collects on his users. It also states people using the service must post a privacy policy and explain a cookie is used to collect data.

The issue, then, seems to be not so much one of privacy, but of transparency. There’s always been a tacit contract between consumers and goods and service providers that understanding how people use things ultimately leads to the improvement of those goods and services. The whole market research industry works on this basis. However, we increasingly need to demonstrate we’re not abusing that trust. It’s not so much about reality here but perceptions.

Organizations are generally highly sensitive to data protection issues. They know this makes sense. With the advent of a widely deployed Web analytics system like Google Analytics, where the site owner has granted rights to user behavior data to the service provider, it also makes sense to tell people that’s what you’re doing and explain the implications in a “clear and precise” way.

In doing some research for this column, I looked at what people were putting into privacy policies regarding their use of Google Analytics. From what I can tell, a number of sites explicitly refer to using the product in their privacy policies and what that use means. An example of what seems to be a very transparent statement can be found at the U.K.’s Forestry Commission site. I found the same wording on a number of different Web sites, so maybe it’s become a de facto standard, at least over here. But it would be useful in this instance if Google (and other service providers whose information rights are shared) were to provide their service users with a template they could use in their privacy policies. I’m sure that will help raise the level of transparency as well as assist in maintaining the contract of trust with consumers.

Please come and say hello if you are at the Emetrics Summit in Washington this week.

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