We Can't Solve It: Don't You Try

I’ve wondered for some time why, when I mention Internet political issues here or in the ClickZ Forum, the reaction is the sound of one hand clapping.

The most important of these issues may be privacy.

TRUSTe executive director Robert Lewin said at the @d:tech conference Tuesday, “Among people who don’t use the Internet, 59 percent say they’re not online because they’re concerned about privacy. Look at those who are on, and 68 percent say they’re concerned. Eighty percent of consumers surveyed by the FTC say they’re somewhat or very concerned. The ‘Wall Street Journal’ asked readers what’s the biggest problem with the new millennium – 29 percent said as their top or second concern, privacy of information. This compared with global warming or terrorism. I think there’s a message here.”

Lewin spoke at a press session under the title “merger mania.” The news hook was Doubleclick’s moves toward monopolizing both ad serving and the databases used to target such messages. The subtext was that this is a clear and present threat to your privacy.

“It’s a clear conflict” for Doubleclick to sell both an ad agency serving solution (DART) and a publisher’s solution (NetGravity),” said AAAA executive vice president Michael Donohue. When Doubleclick acquired the Abacus database, it combined 80 million personal profiles, with addresses, to match against 70-80 million cookie files collected on the web. “Any site that gets you to register can match your cookie with the offline database,” noted Tchong. “When they do that, they’ve got you. They know who you are.” “That’s a no-no,” added Erwin.

These were clear-eyed men, who know that the kind of self-regulation Erwin and TRUSTe have tried to instill has problems. “I wonder if massive self-policing is possible,” said Lazard Freres & Co. equity analyst Dana Serman, whom moderator Michael Tchong praised as having written the “definitive report” on the Internet ad serving market. “All it takes is one bad apple.”

So you might think the panel was pounding the table for action. Maybe you’re thinking they wanted an antitrust move against Doubleclick, or some new legislation protecting privacy.

The opposite was true. There was no support for a move against Doubleclick. “I’m pessimistic about avoiding government regulation” on privacy, admitted Forrester Research senior analyst Jim Nail, but that’s what everyone on the panel wanted, to prevent government action.

What solution might work for privacy problems? “The more noise that’s made, in the press or by competitors or politicians, that kind of thing will result in fast action,” Serman said. When noise hurts a stock’s price, companies react, he added.

The bottom line was sobering. Everyone agreed there is a problem, everyone agreed self-regulation hasn’t worked and isn’t likely to work soon, and everyone agreed they don’t want government involved in any solution. Yeah we’re wrong, yeah we’re dangerous, but no we’re not serious about solving the problem, and no we’ll fight any serious move to force a solution.

The admissions didn’t surprise me, and neither did the arrogance. If it angers or upsets you, your solution lies in the political process. But before you go out there, be warned. You can expect some quiet, but hard work from this industry against any government action on privacy. After they succeed, you can also expect they’ll be back next year to complain some more.

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