Last year, almost fifty million concerned citizens searched the Internet for “Hurricane Sandy”, seeking news about loved ones, information on the damage, advice on how to keep safe and ways to help the relief effort. Collectively these anonymous Internet searchers were described as an online audience, a group of people who cared about the storm, its progress and its impact.
While Google helped connect this audience with a handful of major news outlets via its search results, these people were also those most likely to volunteer their time to the relief effort and donate money to charities. Reaching them as a group proved invaluable for non-profit organizations as they sought the financial support needed to help rebuild communities impacted by the storm.
That, in a nutshell, is what audience-based advertising enables. It allows for large, anonymous groups of users to be shown content and advertising that is most relevant to their interests and when they’re most interested. And it’s a technology that so-called privacy advocates are trying to kill.
Since Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va) first introduced the Do Not Track Online Act, the advertising industry has rolled out an ad choices self-regulatory program that gives consumers the choice to opt-out of targeted ads.
The program, managed by the Digital Advertising Alliance, which includes the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the 4A’s, and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), has participation from more than 90 percent of the interactive ad business. The program was even recognized by the FTC as a good example of public and private partnership.
In a recent AdWeek article about the reintroduction of the Do Not Track Online Act, Dan Jaffe, evp at the ANA said, “We think we’ve made extraordinary progress. More than 5 million people have come to our opt-out site, but only 1 million opt-out. When people understand their choices, the vast majority are accepting of targeted advertising. Getting non-targeted advertising is like getting spam.”
What stood out to me most is that consumers typically don’t opt-out when they have a better understanding of their choices.
To be quite frank, I’m as strongly pro-privacy as anybody I know. I abhor the idea of my pharmacist sharing my personal medical history with an insurance company, or a car manufacturer recording where I’m driving or how fast I drive. But these genuine intrusions on privacy have absolutely nothing to do with how online advertising functions. Online advertising companies aren’t trying to “track” you, or steal your private data – they simply create large, anonymous buckets of audiences with similar interests. Consider the alternative as Jaffe points out, what we’ll end with is basically spam. Regardless of what side of this debate you’re on, I’m confident that’s not the outcome you want.
The reality is that words like “privacy” and “tracking” are emotive terms. Everybody is “pro-privacy”, the same way we’re all technically “pro-life” as opposed to “pro-death.” But it’s a term that has been hijacked by a particular interest group with a specific agenda.
If something “protects privacy” or “prevents tracking” how could anyone be opposed? The privacy witch-hunt has developed a mob mentality, where fear mongering and emotive terminology are trumping genuine, informed debates.
The fact remains that online advertising is the lifeblood of the Internet. It’s what enables Google to deliver instant results and provide access to the world’s largest information source, it enables Facebook to help you connect with your friends and family, and Twitter to give up-to-the-second news on the world around you. All for free. But this foundation of the “free Internet” economy is under a very real and credible threat.
When advertising is more relevant, it’s less intrusive to consumers, more valuable to advertisers, and more profitable for publishers.
A world in which all browsers block third-party cookies (the technology upon which audience targeting is built) is not a privacy nirvana. It’s a world with a less vibrant, less open, less valuable Internet. Rather than being shown a handful of interesting, relevant ads, users will find their favorite sites flooded with even more, low value ads as publishers seek to recapture the revenue lost from advertisers who can no longer reach their relevant audiences. Users will see more publishers erect pay-walls, blocking free content and forcing users to pay for access. And worst of all, it won’t actually provide any meaningful protection of consumer’s privacy in the process.
No one is arguing that a consumer’s privacy isn’t important. Consumers deserve protection now more than ever in a world where information flows so freely and openly. But as we work towards putting safeguards in place, let’s be sure we do so in a way that actually addresses the right issues.
The bottom line is that we are in very real danger of making far-reaching, important decisions about the way the Internet works based on fear and ignorance. If we fail to make smart, educated decisions about the use of audience data, we could put the very future of the Internet in jeopardy.