Digital Marketers Abuzz About WSJ Article Slamming Web Tracking

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably already heard about or read a July 30 Wall Street Journal article called “The Web’s  New Gold Mine: Your Secrets.”

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably already heard about or read a July 30 Wall Street Journal article called “The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets.”

In case you haven’t, the article — which offers findings from a study conducted by the Journal that assesses and analyzes cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on internet users — paints a very ugly picture of online marketers and web tracking companies.

The study reveals that the “tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.” For example, the nation’s 50 top websites, on average, installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred.

The study also found that tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. “Monitoring used to be limited mainly to ‘cookie’ files that record websites people visit,” the article said. “But the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them.”

Finally, the report found that “these profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.”

For the online ad industry, this article comes at an inopportune time. Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) have drafted privacy legislation, the Senate held a hearing last week on the subject, and the Federal Trade Commission is preparing to release a report this fall.

As expected, the digital marketing industry is riled, with online ad industry execs reassuiring the public that they provide clear notice, allow users to opt out of ad targeting and don’t collect users’ names. One article that was particularly on target about the importance of advertisers coming clean on how they use consumer data was by BlueKai CEO Omar Tawakol.

In the article, which appeared in the Aug. 2 edition of Advertising Age, Tawakol says, “every web page that collects or shares data should be clear and visual about the data being collected. This disclosure needs to be simple and visual rather than in legalese that requires a law degree to comprehend. It should be as simple as a recycling label or a nutrition label. In addition to providing disclosure, the industry should also give consumers easy control over when, where, why and how that dataset is used.” He also suggested the following:

  • Every publisher of data should link to a preference manager at the bottom of each page called “about advertising.”
  • Every ad should have a standard icon like the little ‘i’ icon created by the Future of Privacy Foundation. That icon should link to a preference manager which shows you how to control your own data.
  • There are several different versions of preference managers like BlueKai, including Google, Better Advertising and Yahoo. Although one standard is preferable, choice isn’t a bad thing — even if it means different companies provide different ways for consumers to visualize their data.
  • Once this is prevalent, legislators should mandate that the only way publishers and ad companies are allowed to share consumer data across third parties is if they conform to the industry standards on transparency and control that are outlined above.

All great ideas … but there’s more to the story. In next week’s blog, I’ll introduce another argument to the mix: the growing number of sites where users volunteer the information that cookies try to collect.

What do you think of the WSJ article? Post your comments below.