“We’re at the start of a revolution in the ways marketers and media intrude in – and shape – our lives.” (Turow 1-2). This “revolution” is the result of new web-tracking tools (such as “cookies”) which are used to monitor the activity of people on the Internet, often without their knowledge or consent. The data collected from these cookies is being translated into information for marketers and advertisers who can then determine (1) whether the person-in-question would be a potential customer, and (2) if so, what tone, method, and frequency of advertising would be most effective in convincing the person to buy the product. The implications of this technology are numerous, but this essay will focus on the tension between privacy activist groups and businesses with an economic interest in targeted ads. Through a discussion of the economic interests of web trackers, the privacy interests of activists, and the regulatory activity that has already been enacted, the primary concern of this essay is in promoting an open and informed public discourse over the normative role of the Internet and whether our privacy online is an even trade for the free and seemingly limitless content provided to us through the Web.
“Federal regulation of the Internet is one more Big Government idea that’s inimical to consumer choice, the First Amendment, communications diversity, and economic growth,” stated Randall Rothenberg, president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) in an article for the USA Today. This sentiment, in conjunction with the rest of the article, argues that the economic prosperity of the Internet economy relies heavily on data tracking tools (Rothenberg). Stakeholders on this side of the debate include: web publishers, owners of online “advertising exchanges” (such as Google and Yahoo!), data management firms (who track and categorize user activity), industry groups, media buyers (who plan, strategize, and buy online advertising), and corporations (Turow 4-5; 176). Their central argument is that in order for Internet content to remain free, the Web must have advertisements, through which corporate executives can quantifiably measure a return on investment, and can focus on advertising to specific demographics (and thus reach their target market). Without data tracking tools, media buyers and corporations would be somewhat blind to the demographics they are reaching with their ads and might pull back online advertising funds and spend that money in a different medium, such as television, as a result. This de-monetization trend would severely endanger online content creators whose entire business models rely on advertising revenue. The fear is that without advertising options, these content creators, and the variety of voices on the Web, would go out of business and become silent (Rothenberg). Therefore, tracking-promoters argue that tracking tools, and the advertisements that result from them, are necessary in order to keep the Internet free, diverse, and thriving.
Privacy activists shed a more disturbing light on the idea of personal advertisements and Internet tracking. Stakeholders on this side of the debate include privacy activist groups, privacy scholars, and the Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Protection Agency (in cases of “sensitive information”). In his book titled The Daily You, University of Pennsylvania professor Joseph Turow argued, “The logical end for marketers and publishers of all these practices is the creation of reputation silos: flows of advertising, information, entertainment, and news designed to fit profiles about individuals and people who statistically seem similar” (Turow 190). Turow explains that these “reputation silos” could lead to status divisions when, for example, one person continually receives advertisements and discounts for low-status merchandise (such as fast-food and used cars) while another receives promotions for luxury, high-status items (such as fine dining and sports cars), all based on search history (Turow 3). Ultimately, the paramount concern of the privacy activists is that data management firms will gather powerful information, converge technologies (such as GPS on mobile devices, credit card information, and “cookie” trackers), and then disaggregate the data to create a fully-comprehensive picture of individual people which they could use to manipulate consumers. This concern was echoed in a New York Times article where University of California, Berkeley law professor and privacy expert Paul M. Schwartz stated, “Interactive media really gets into this creepy Orwellian thing, where it’s a record of our thoughts on the way to decision-making. We’re like the data-input clerks now for the industry” (Clifford). Therefore, privacy activists believe that while the Internet must be free, diverse, and allowed to thrive, it must also grant users the ability to access content without leaving behind a trail for those with an economic, and possibly exploitative, interest to follow.
At the time of writing this essay, relatively little regulation exists to govern the practice of tracking online activity due to the widespread concern that government intervention would “kill the goose that is laying golden eggs both domestically and worldwide” (Turow 199). There are only three categories of “sensitive information” that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken action to protect. These are health information, financial information, and information from children under thirteen years old, which have been regulated under the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, respectively (Turow 172). The FTC and Consumer Protection Agency have been fairly active in protecting information along these three grounds, but they have clearly stated that regulation for “non-threatening” information, which includes browsing histories, should be determined by methods of industry self-regulation.
Clifford, Stephanie. “Ads Follow Web Users and Get More Personal.” Nytimes.com. New York Times, 30 July 2009. Web.
Interactive Advertising Bureau; Direct Marketing Association; Council of Better Business Bureaus; Association of National Advertisers; American Association of Advertising Agencies;. Self-Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioral Advertising. N.p., July 2009. Web.
Rothenberg, Randall. “Opposing View on Internet Privacy: Don’t Fear Internet Tracking – USATODAY.com.” Opposing View on Internet Privacy: Don’t Fear Internet Tracking – USATODAY.com, 8 Aug. 2010. Web.
Turow, Joseph. The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your worth. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. Print.
United States of America. Federal Trade Commission. Self-Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioral Advertising. N.p., Feb. 2009. Web.
A website that’s essentially “Cookies for Dummies,” in case you want to learn more.
The BBC has an article that discusses the purpose of the Data Protection Act and why it’s your friend. [Editor’s Note: The article in no longer available.]
Here’s the extremely creepy new technology that could replace cookies for marketers in the future.
Angela Polinsky is an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia. Her interests include web analytics, e-commerce, and the legal tensions surrounding digital culture. She recently completed the Google Analytics Individual Qualification (GAIQ) program, and is currently working to help local businesses optimize their presence online.