Privacy Isn’t the Issue, Trust Is

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By: Dave Morgan

Guest Opinion

Privacy is an issue that uniquely plagues the online industry. Consumers don’t seem to mind that banks sell their balance information, or that their in-store transactions, catalogue purchases, and magazine subscriptions are routinely sold to direct marketers. Or that security cameras record their comings and goings. For years, customers of Radio Shack freely gave up their home addresses and phone numbers just to buy some batteries.

I suspect there is more to fear in how offline personal credit records are compiled than in whether cookies are tracking you when you click on Internet ads, but the public remains convinced there is something, well sinister, about the collection and use of online data … or do they?

Consumers rightfully complain about the intrusiveness of pop-up and pop-under ads and the incredible amount of irrelevant spam that overflows their in-boxes, and suspect that they might become targets when they complete online registration forms, sweepstakes, e-commerce orders, or newsletter sign-ups with their e-mail addresses. These complaints are regularly offered and portrayed in the press and by privacy pundits as evidence of significant consumer concerns about violations of their privacy.

But is this really about privacy?

I think not. It’s really all about trust.

Consumer angst involves not their privacy being violated but their trust being either ignored or abused. Most people don’t read privacy policies or know anything about the laws and regulations that govern consumer privacy. According to a study recently released by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, “a solid majority of U.S. adults who use the Internet at home misunderstands the very purpose of privacy policies” and “have no clue about data flows.”

I think that “blind trust” drives most Americans when they enter information on a registration page, or when they download an application that they think will be helpful (or have been warned is essential). They will trust organizations or services until they are burned and learn that their trust was misplaced. That is how they have dealt with every other business in their everyday lives, from media companies to telecommunication providers to services and utilities to retailers. The Annenberg study tells us that fully half of Americans that don’t want their personal information shared among companies will nonetheless readily give their real name and address to their favorite Web site if asked.

This erosion of trust is having a significant impact on the ability of the online publishing industry to take its rightful place as an important advertising and marketing channel for all businesses around the globe. How do we start building long-term trust with consumers and advertisers?

First, we must find ways to control those practices that irritate and offend consumers and advertisers the most.

Our first priority? Spam. Consumers can differentiate between relationship-based communications from legitimate marketers vs. non permission-based solicitations, according to DoubleClick’s Q1 2003 E-mail Trend Report. “Marketers can build upon these relationships by asking their customers about the type of content they would like to receive, as well as how often they want to be contacted,” says DoubleClick.

Many of the names that are sold in our industry as “opt-in” are nothing of the sort. Too many of us operate under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. If we don’t explicitly know that an e-mail list was improperly harvested, then we don’t really care. We just want more fresh names to sell. If we don’t act as an industry, legislatures will (there are a half dozen bills in the House or Senate right now).

Second, we must begin treating consumers and their data with more respect. They should be given real notice of what we are doing and a real opportunity not to participate. We should do this in practice, not just in legal theory. We should end the tricks and gimmicks, or we end up in the same place as the subscription clearing houses did — remember them? — once the courts and legislatures stepped in.

We should stop trying to scare consumers into giving data because they have been told that “their computer is in desperate need of”: a) cleansing; b) optimization; or c) a desk-top utility that will tell them the time, but is really only there to suck every bit of their personal browsing data out of their machine for direct marketing purposes. (This is only disclosed very, very deep in the unread privacy policy.) I suspect consumers who downloaded these tools never knew and understood what the application was actually doing, and what was happening to their data.

In registration, we need clear and simple language about what is being captured and what the consumer can expect will be done with the data (not “we will not sell or distribute consumer data to third parties under any circumstance, except for … and … and … and … and …”).

In the delivery of ads and syndicated content, publishers with direct consumer relationships should be explicit about what information is being captured, how much, and by whom, and even take a stronger role in evaluating and potentially blocking much of the data being captured. Third parties, like ad servers, should take significant steps to actively inform consumers of what data they capture and what they are doing with it. Very few consumers realize that with every ad banner and Web page downloaded come innumerable Web beacons and cookies from third parties that the consumer does not know nor has ever directly transacted with. If the publisher or third party does not tell them explicitly, as part of the delivery — not just in language hidden in a privacy policy — how else will they know?

Third, we as an industry must actively develop and promote best practices in the capture and exploitation of consumer data and targeted advertising. We need to put aside competitive differences and help support the many industry initiatives being driven by organizations like the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the Online Publishers Association to help us grow our industry responsibly.

Finally, we need to vigorously police ourselves and call out those with data practices that are improper, unethical, or illegal. As an industry, we have looked the other way too many times in the past. We shouldn’t make the mistake again, and certainly not for something as essential to our business as consumer trust.

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