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Ken Magill

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Privacy Wackos Eye 2011; Journos Mindlessly Parrot

By Ken Magill

What is truly astounding about the debate over online advertising and consumer privacy is the utter lack of intellectual curiosity on the part of most journalists covering it.

Take, for example, a story recently on Politico.com. It led: “The odds of Congress passing an online privacy bill this year get slimmer by the day, leading interest groups to fire up a lobbying blitz with an eye toward 2011.

“Supporters and critics of the effort are asserting themselves strongly in a debate over how companies like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook can collect and use consumers’ information on the Web.”

There’s an assumption in that second sentence that a) is flat-out wrong and b) very few people question.

The flat-out wrong assumption is that consumers own the information surrounding their Internet activity. This is nonsense. Searches, browsing, reading and online buying are all value-for-value transactions between private entities. When a value-for-value transaction takes place between two private entities, both rightfully own the information surrounding that transaction.

It is incredible that such a large swath of people assume they should be able to use a company’s services free of charge and offer nothing of value in return. Privacy advocates’ mentality is that of spoiled, eight-year-old brats.

Yeah, Magill, but only one of those private entities can do harm with that information: the marketer.

Oh, really? If anyone is doing damage using transactional-and-behavioral information, it’s consumers. A simple Google, Bing or Yahoo! search using the name of any national consumer brand and the word “sucks” bears this out. While many or even most of these “sucks” forums may be justified, they can and do affect businesses, therefore jobs, therefore people’s lives for the worse.

The same can’t be said about behaviorally targeted ads. No one has ever been hurt by online advertising. Not. One. Single. Person. ... Ever.

Yet, most reporters display a stunning lack of curiosity on the issue of actual harm.

They never indicate whether they have asked a privacy advocate if anyone’s ever been hurt as the result of online behavioral ad tracking—most likely because the thought hasn’t even occurred to them.

We don’t need Congress to protect consumers’ privacy from online advertisers. There’s an incredibly simple invention as old as human civilization that already drives online advertisers to avoid harming people: It’s called money [not to be confused with coinage, which is relatively new].

If a company harms people, its supply of money is threatened. If it harms enough people, it goes out of business.

If Google or an ad network wants to serve me an ad for the Rent-a-Dominatrix Humiliate-Me Special based on a voluntary search or surfing behavior in links or on a relevant site, how can that possibly harm me? Oh. Right. That really could harm me.

But only after I made the purchase. The mere act of serving the ad is harmless.

Oh, Ken, but you most certainly have information about you that you wouldn’t want getting out, right? That intellectually vacant argument always comes up in privacy debates. Besides the fact that I wake up regularly in our backyard chicken coop hung over and naked, covered in corn syrup and feathers with my wrists and ankles tied, a squeaky toy in my mouth and my wife’s panties on my head, yes, of course there are things about me I don’t want made public.

But if an obviously personalized ad for the Rent-a-Dominatrix Humiliate-Me Special appears in the wrong place, its misplaced intrusion alone will at the very least result in non-action and a failed campaign—a waste of money—if not outrage and backlash, resulting in a damaged reputation and lost business. And once I make the purchase, Rent-a-Dominatrix has a repeat-business incentive to keep my proclivities confidential. See? There’s that pesky profit motive again.

This column isn’t remotely to say profit drives all companies to behave. That would be a stupid claim. It is to say, however, that profit provides the most effective—albeit imperfect—incentive to keep online advertisers’ worst instincts in check. Remember, this is about actual harm, not people’s kneejerk reactions over what they think advertisers should and shouldn’t be able to do in their online targeting efforts.

No one’s been hurt by online advertising, online behavioral tracking works, and all Congress would do by passing a privacy law aimed at online advertisers is needlessly muck things up and kill jobs when we can least afford it.

I was on a political-commentary site recently that served an ad for a candidate for New York’s 19th congressional district, the district I live in. Neither the site nor the would-be representative’s campaign staffers had my name or any other personal information. All they had were the likely political leanings of the site’s readers and where I was located (by IP address, I assume). Bingo. The ad was right on target.

Why would anyone want to restrict such magnificent advertising efficiency?

The anti-ad folks are forever complaining about the wastefulness of direct mail. Fair enough. But when marketers use perfectly harmless information to gain efficiency online, the anti-ad activists claim it’s an invasion of privacy.

Want to know what really motivates the anti-ad gang? They hate advertising and they hate capitalism to their very core. All of their efforts are aimed at killing the former and crippling the latter in the name of so-called consumer protection when, in fact, they are the ones harming consumers by needlessly driving up the cost of goods and services.

“It’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be a bloody battle. But I think our side is intent on pushing legislation through,” said Jeff Chester, founder and executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, referring to planned efforts for 2011, according to Politico.com.

Here’s to hoping the Internet Advertising Bureau and other pro-ad groups are up for the battle, common sense prevails, and Chester and his cohorts fail as miserably in 2011 and beyond as they have so far in 2010.

Author’s note: Man, I wish the comments feature was enabled for this piece. I have been assured my vendor is working on it. Meanwhile, if anyone’s got anything to say, please email me at kenmagill_at_gmail.com. If the comments are good, especially the negative ones, I’ll work them into a follow-up piece.

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