Monday, June 30, 2008

There's nothing free about privacy

The Network Advertising Initiative is, much like the Direct Marketing Association's decades-old opt out list for direct mailers, an attempt at self regulation by the online advertising industry. It's designed to address the concerns of those who fear online profiling and tracking by marketers and advertisers.

Some would insist, as with the National Do Not Call initiative for telemarketing, that only punishment and enforcement (by an empowered government agency) can prevent abuses by marketers and the businesses they serve. Others (primarily the marketers and businesses), remind us that most of the 'free' online experience is paid for by advertising, suggesting a more laissez faire approach.

Though one can examine the details of the initiative (for example, the types of personally identifiable information that the policy guidelines would exclude), much of the debate seems to boil down to a simple question: do you think someone should have to opt-in or should they have to opt-out of behavior-based tracking designed to serve relevant ads?

Consumers have gladly exchanged access to their personal and purchase behavior information in loyalty programs for a few pennies off a purchase now and then. Online, with behavioral tracking for preference marketing, users simply aren't being asked for their permission...though the payoff would presumably be in more relevant content.

Users must specifically opt-out using the NAI website. Even then, it won't eliminate advertising, just the relevance with which it is served up based on a user's behavior...and only among the ad networks subscribing to the NAI policy.

Whether this type of initiative makes sense may depend on societal factors unique to particular countries and cultures. Are there high levels of trust among people? ..of the government? ...of business? Is privacy--in all its forms--viewed as a right? Is the web a public space or a private place?

In countries with a high tolerance for ever-increasing surveillance of citizen's behavior by governments, businesses and individuals, it may come down to a choice: between allowing a business community to occasionally annoy you in its attempt to meet your needs or in demanding protection from a government agency enforcing a well-intentioned idea with all the subtlety the law affords.

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