The digital privacy battles now brewing in the House of Representatives and at the Federal Trade Commission finally woke the industry up to its complacency over this issue, but I think many publishers and ad networks proceeded to get up on the wrong side of the bed. The principals in the behavioral targeting industry, which is attracting much of the scrutiny now, seem to recognize that they must better explain their policies to consumers and assure all of us that they indeed are not collecting personally identifiable information (PII) when they track our movements around the internet. Ultimately, though, I think they woke up to the wrong issue.
The point isn’t just protecting our PII. The point is explaining to consumers what value this exchange of information brings to them. Those tracking our online behaviors (no matter how innocuously) like to claim that the technology produces more "relevant advertising" that is "of greater value" to the consumer. Really? Where? MySpace has been touting its supposed "hyper-targeting" of ads against user profiles for a year now. My 16-year-old daughter complains repeatedly that her and her friends’ pages are cluttered with irritating animated ads that employ deceptive come-ons or pitch products that have nothing to do with her. She stopped clicking on any of them long ago. The situation diminishes her opinion of the advertising that supports her MySpace habit, and it diminishes the value of that real estate for advertisers themselves. I have cookies on my browser from all the major ad networks, but I don’t see any evidence of more targeted campaigns.
Publishers and ad networks will be quick to argue that the complaints from my daughter and me are arbitrary and ill-informed. After all, content providers like to say (with thinly veiled resentment) that advertising is necessary because we refuse to pay for our content online. Fair enough. But is bad, irrelevant, and irritating advertising necessary? Is that the implicit value exchange? In response to my complaint that advertising feels untargeted despite tracking technologies, networks may say that behavioral targeting and the like are not really demonstrable and visible at any given time but that they are there.
The problem is not the user. The problem is that publishers have done a woefully poor job of demonstrating the exchange of value that ad-supported content offers the user.
Free, ad-supported content always carried with it an implicit bargain for the audience. The sponsor rents your consciousness for a moment and then underwrites the programming you really came to absorb. However, in the digital age, when every click is measureable and leaves a trail, sponsors don’t just borrow our attention; they also lease evermore personal information. As marketers mine social networks, personal profiles, and now mobile media that can track buying habits and even location, the technology is rendering a level of personal detail that is both intimate and intrinsically valuable in unprecedented ways. In order to justify this new intrusiveness, the content ecosystem must get better at communicating the nature of the value exchange to users or they will risk a privacy backlash.
Curiously, some emerging platforms really are helping content providers practice the art of communicating a value exchange. For instance, Virgin Mobile has a program that awards free minutes to its wireless customers’ accounts in exchange for watching video ads on the website. Online game providers such as Electronic Arts, Inc. (Battlefield Heroes and Pogo.com) make it very apparent to visitors that a valuable game experience is being brought to them by sponsors who are appearing in and around the game. For years now, the innovative company Ultramercial LLC has been crafting sponsored "day passes" to subscriber-only content at Economist.com and Salon.com. Access to the content is an explicit barter between the advertiser and the consumer.
In most of these cases, the ads are fairly well targeted to the likely audience and the creative units themselves are entertaining. All of these examples have another interesting effect: They confer greater respect and value both to the user and to the content. My time and attention are valued by the sponsor, and the content itself is less cluttered and feels more meaningful. That is a good exchange of value.
Yet this is not the way most of the web works. By cluttering their pages with low-revenue, irrelevant ads and by gathering information on my habits without permission or clear benefit, the current value exchange seems to this user less and less of a deal.