What Does the Future Hold … Less Free Content?

Do-Not-Track and Online Behavioral Advertising

If you’ve been listening, you are aware of the Federal Trade Commission’s December 2010 Preliminary Staff Report: Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change. (Update: The final FTC Privacy Report has been released.) You also know the Commission has challenged providers to create “Do-Not-Track” technology allowing users to opt-out from on-line behavioral advertising. Reportedly, those things are already in the works. This sounds great, especially to a hermit curmudgeon like me (I can’t delete Flash cookies fast enough). But what are some of the implications of this?

There’s a funny and intriguing article by Jack Shafer on Slate.com in which he ponders who is in the best position to create a web browser that provides robust security for the user. While Mr. Shafer points out that he is not against advertising, he notes it’s not in the best interest of developers to provide iron-clad browsers preventing web-tracking technology because of financial connections to advertising revenue. He also perhaps aptly notes, while he is in favor of the legitimate uses for cookies, “too many Web entrepreneurs observe no limits when they decide to snoop.”

Mr. Shafer postulates there may be a market for such a browser, but includes a quote (sure to become a classic in my book) from his colleague Farhad Manjoo: “I doubt there’s a market for such a browser. People don’t care about privacy. They just say they do. If they did, they wouldn’t use Facebook.”

So, which is it? Are users really ready to give up free content in exchange for privacy? According to a recent Gallup poll 61% of individuals polled felt the privacy intrusion presented by tracking was not worth the free access to content. 67% said that advertisers should not be able to match ads to specific interests based upon websites visited.

What about the other 33-39%? Do they really not care, or are they not willing to give-up the Web they know and love?

How about exploring another option? What if I go to Harry’s Widget Shoppe and I decide to tell Harry that I am extremely interested in buying maroon widgets (we all know they’re the best)? Suppose I also tell Harry to contact me immediately if he comes across any maroon widgets (not blue, yellow or green – just maroon). Why should I have to receive 264 e-mails and see 400 ads in the course of 48 hours from Mildred telling me about how great her blue widgets are? I don’t want blue widgets! I had plenty of them, and they’re nothing but trouble. By the same token, I’m not so hip on seeing 918 ads about teeth whitening either (Note to self: make an appointment with the dentist).

Assuming Mildred paid to obtain my “widget” profile from Harry or one of his network servers, what did she really get for her money? Not much. She probably guaranteed that I won’t buy any widgets from her ever. Well, maybe, if it’s an especially rare maroon widget…you know…like the ones with feathers…and she buys me dinner). I also might not be talking to Harry anytime soon, either. But, I digress…

Harry has valuable information about me. Information that may well be worth much more to an advertiser than the fact that I visited Harry’s Widget Shoppe.com. What if Harry asked me if it was okay if he provided my information to others who had maroon widgets? What if Harry also told me that these others with whom he shared my information were contractually obligated not to send my information on to anyone else without my permission? Ye Olde Only Maroon Widget Shoppe.com might be willing to pay Harry dearly for that information, I might get my pick of lovely maroon widgets, I won’t see constant ads from other widget sellers in which I have no interest, and my in-box would be much more manageable. Oh, and by the way, I would not feel as if I had totally lost control over information about me.

At its heart, control is a form of choice. While realistically, we have very little real choice left in this world, there are some things we still would like to control. I figure a good proportion of that 33-39% might say the same. I might be willing to share some information, and let you pass it on, if I knew you were not surreptitiously taking it from me, and abiding by my wishes.

So, I suppose the upshot is, it looks like it’s time for business to start asking me for my information and what controls can be placed on it. Through that process alone, the real value in the information is revealed, and I don’t feel swindled.

Just some thoughts, but I could be wrong. Let’s take another poll.