In the Privacy Debate, Civility is Killing Us
By Ken Magill
Remember during the summer when civility—or lack thereof—was an ongoing topic in American political debates? We needed to address our differences more civilly, was the claim.
But with Occupy Wall Street protesters calling for the death of capitalism, the debate over civility seems so far away now.
Good. Screw civility.
You know what civility gets you? It gets you a bunch of people saying what a nice guy you are while your opponent happily processes your ass through a meat grinder.
When an issue is contentious, civility is the tactic of the soon-to-be loser. And the road to Nice-Guy Loserville is exactly the path the behavioral online advertising industry is traveling.
So-called privacy advocates make outlandish, baseless, intellectually vacant claims. They call for needlessly burdensome restrictions on an industry that is a harmless, all-around win for everyone involved—including, unfortunately, them—and with a rare exception or two, not an unkind word is said about privacy zealots.
And you know what? The zealots are winning.
They’re winning because no one who can affect the debate is ruthlessly pointing out the job-killing, innovation-threatening idiocy of their positions.
No finer example of online privacy lunacy exists than Jeff Chester, executive director of one-man-show Center for Digital Democracy. He is the poster child for outlandish claims about online advertising.
For example, ad agency WPP recently launched a behavioral-advertising database claiming it is privacy friendly. Chester challenged the claim in a blog post, writing: “Like the tobacco industry, it’s time to ask data technology and ad executives to tell the real truth.”
Here’s the problem with Chester’s outlandish statement: Behavioral advertising has been used by marketers for decades and hasn’t harmed a single person. It benefits everyone involved.
Behaviorally targeted online advertising networks are an effective way to help merchants reach people more likely to want and buy their wares. These networks allow merchants to deliver their goods and services at more affordable prices. Behavioral advertising employs thousands of people.
That Chester would compare the online ad industry to the tobacco industry is an utterly twisted assertion and should immediately eliminate him from any reasonable debate about online privacy.
Cigarettes have been responsible for the premature, agonizing, disfiguring deaths of millions of people.
Chester’s proclamations in general should invite ridicule. The tobacco comparison in particular should invite revulsion.
But do a search using his name on Google news and Chester comes up repeatedly. He is a go-to guy for reporters looking for quotes about online advertising and privacy. Near as I can tell, he is never challenged by reporters in the consumer press.
And here’s where the need for a lack of civility comes in: While privacy advocates have been steadily gaining the upper hand by making wildly ridiculous claims bereft of anything resembling substance, marketing representatives have been quietly, politely defending their craft to lawmakers and other government officials behind the scenes.
In the online-advertising-privacy debate, polite behind-the-scenes defense is the road to death.
Advertising executives can defend their industry to government officials all they want. But if privacy advocates continue succeeding in getting the public riled up over what should be a non-issue, government officials will react to public outcry, reasonable or not, against the interests of online advertisers.
If behaviorally targeted-ad-network executives want their industry to survive, they must go on offense and start loudly pointing out what dangerous fools their industry’s detractors are.
The major marketing trade groups’ Self-Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioral Advertising are a start, but they’re too passive.
The only counter offense to the privacy movement is a sophisticated, vocal public-relations-and-advertising campaign. Advertising interests must publicly refute those who would see their industry killed while making clear their services’ benefits and non-threats directly to consumers.
And surely an industry that saw $14.9 billion in revenue in the first half of 2011, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau, can afford to finance it.