How much information?

The WSJ has recently been running an ‘expose’ around how many web businesses are built on a foundation of “spying on consumers”.

Despite the use of some hysterical words, it’s not a bad read –

The issue of companies tracking your online activities is one that you don’t really hear much about in Australia. Yet.

There was a bit of a fuss made about Google’s Street View cars picking up on some private wi-fi data, but in comparison to what the company is collecting information wise about users online it was absolutely tiny.

Google is just one of hundreds of companies that are placing tracking cookies on computers to try and monitor behaviour and ideally sell back this information to potential advertisers.

There is nothing illegal about it, but it generally goes on without the user knowing.

These cookies can reveal a lot about a user of a particular computer. What they search for – words, maps, music. What articles they read. Who they email. When they use the computer. What sites they visit. Which service providers they use online.

So far, this has been allowed to happen with no restriction. The clincher for the companies is that the data is collected ‘anonymously’ … which is partially true, but ultimately they know everything about the person aside their name. The second clincher is that the data collected will create “more relevant” advertising experiences for these users.

The data may be collected anonymously – ie, without a name attached – but pretty much everything else is attached from their age/gender/location/interests/friends/surfing habits. The second point around relevance is debatable. Right now, collecting data is a free for all that’s only limitation is technology. Nothing is off limits to collect.

The Chairman of 24-7 Real Media is pretty self-righteous about the info his company tracks. It’s positively transformational in his eyes. “When an ad is targeted properly, it ceases to be an ad, it becomes important information” says David Moore.

In the US this issue is now becoming one that isn’t just being debated by advertising and technology types, it’s become a legislative one.

My feeling is within the next 6-12 months there will be some debate around a few areas

1/ Do companies have the right to collect this data? If so – who? I can understand if I have a direct relationship with a site – ie a Google or an MSN – they may require some information about me. It’s second and third party info gatherers. Ad networks are one. Information companies like Targus are another. Ad exchanges like Yahoo!’s Right Media are another. These companies are not really providing anything to the user in return for collecting commercially valuable information about them.

2/ Should websites who are collecting information about users – OR charging others access to drop tags/cookies and collate information about their users – have to be more upfront about what they’re doing and ways users can delete cookies or opt out?

The reality is that many web businesses are facing financial pressures and are looking to generate revenue wherever they can. That is why over the last 2-3 years there’s more and more data being collected on users. This is a trend that isn’t going away.

The big question. Should the government be involved and determine what can or can’t be done? Or is the industry in a place where it can effectively self-regulate … both for the protection of users and also the industry’s future viability.

Right now there’s a fine line between relevance and creepy.


3 responses to “How much information?

  1. Just pointing out the beacons on THIS page:

    And that WSJ page: (Facebook)

  2. talkingdigital

    there is a really cool firefox plugin called firebug that helps you see what beacons are on what pages … very handy!

  3. Good article Ben and definitely a subject that will loom larger in all our professional and personal lives in the coming months.
    Industry self-regulation is the way forward and whilst in its infancy there is a lot of work being done that I will be able to talk about more publicly in the coming weeks that addresses the concerns and current legislation applicable to consumer privacy whilst also enabling industry to provide technologies to offer more relevant advertising to consumers.
    Consumers are actually better protected here in Australia than the US, UK and EU thanks to the Privacy Act and also advertising codes such as the AANA code on advertising to children.
    More in the coming weeks.

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