Setting Ourselves Up For a Revolt, Redux

Normally, I use my column to try to answer questions about media buying issues in the online advertising industry. In some rare cases, however, I have been known to use this forum to ask questions. What’s more this week I’m going to use this space to ask a question that I’ve already asked before.

Wednesday the 30th brought an announcement from Disney’s Buena Vista Internet Group that Disney will neither accept advertising from, nor will it advertise on sites that do not post a clear privacy policy. Many of you will recall that IBM made a similar announcement at the end of March, stating that it would no longer advertise on sites that didn’t post a privacy policy.

Regardless of whether you think IBM and Disney are incredibly smart or incredibly foolish for these decisions, one can see that the intention is clear: Both of these companies wish to protect their users from invasions of privacy.

Privacy advocates caused a stir when DoubleClick announced its merger with Abacus Direct Corporation a couple weeks back. A complaint was filed with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that the merger would result in intrusive marketing practices. An article by Bob Tedeschi in The New York Times did a terrific job of noting that what DoubleClick and Abacus were doing was nothing new.

As Internet marketers, we know plenty about how some organizations collect data on online users and use the information to target ads (often on other sites that may be unrelated, other than the fact that they use the same adserver). In this day and age, it seems adservers need a consumer information partner in order to remain competitive.

So I will pose the same question I asked in this space back in May of last year: Ought Internet marketers to be targeting ads to consumers using data that could be construed as an invasion of privacy by those consumers?

It’s not a question for which I have an immediate answer. Many marketers when asked this question will attempt to justify the use of the collected data, saying that catalog marketers have been using some of the same data for years. True, but I don’t consider this a justification. After all, the notion that someone else did it before you is not, IMHO, a legitimate justification for doing something yourself.

Some will make the argument that privacy advocates should not be concerned with adserver-based targeting. After all, the marketers who use the data to target ads never really have direct access to the data collected. In reality, access to this data is granted only to the servers that decide which ad to serve to which user. An interesting notion Is the fact that humans are not involved in the process relevant?

Another couple things to consider: Some adservers that service large networks of web sites use cookies to identify users. Since cookies can generally be read only by the server that placed them with a user, the adservers own a particularly powerful method for identifying large numbers of Internet users, particularly if they are able to associate user identities to those cookies.

Every site that elects to use a third party adserver can potentially benefit from other sites that use the same adserver. Without making a judgment one way or the other on whether this actually occurs, one must admit the potential for abuse is tremendous. Do site privacy statements adequately take into consideration the issues surrounding adservers?

I’d love to see a tremendous debate on this issue. I think the best thing that can come from this article is an open debate on the importance of privacy issues in online consumer data collection. Let’s start it on the ClickZ Forum and go from there.

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