Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Innocent Casualties, Irrational Fears
By David G. Young
WASHINGTON, DC, March 7, 2000 --
The retreat of the Internet's largest advertising company from plans to build a database of websurfer profiles is a major setback for commerce on the web, and will prove to be a terrible mistake for the company. DoubleClick, Inc., had paid $1 billion last fall to acquire Abacus Direct, a bricks-and-mortar marketing firm that collects information on people's catalogue-shopping habits.1 This may be $1 billion out the window -- DoubleClick's CEO now says he won't proceed to integrate these systems until there is a consensus between the U.S. Government and the online industry on privacy standards.2
Before the decision, Doubleclick had unfairly received intense pressure from Federal Trade commission and Michigan Justice Department investigations of its privacy policies.3 These investigations are completely unjustified, since virtually all of DoubleClick's (unprofitable) business to date has been in the anonymous targeting of banner ads on the web. This totally privacy-friendly practice stands in stark contrast to the behavior of other online firms -- like America Online -- which build highly detailed personal profiles based upon virtually every move a user makes on the web. Other bricks-and-mortar companies are far worse still. Many credit card companies, charitable organizations, traditional catalogue retailers, and supermarkets do far more invasive profiling -- without ever even informing the individual.
What's truly amazing about this sad story is the great strides DoubleClick had taken to allay consumer fears. In its plans to merge its newly-bought consumer database with its web tracking system, DoubleClick chose only a handful of web sites to participate -- all of which gave people the choice of opting out of the profiling program.4
Two of these partners, Alta Vista and Kozmo.com, pulled out of the program out of apparent concern for protecting their corporate images from the controversy.5 Instead of finding new partners to stand and fight, DoubleClick threw in the towel. The company has therefore become an innocent casualty in an ongoing battle against consumer fears.
It is unfortunate that DoubleClick behaved so cowardly, because consumer profiling is actually a public good. It is through such practices that advertisers can inform us about products that we actually want, instead of annoy us with pitches for stuff we find worthless. Targeted advertising is good -- if all ads were perfectly targeted, you'd never get that obnoxious call from AT&T during dinner. Instead, they'd politely offer you a discount international calling plan the same day that MCI charges you $130 to call the Netherlands.
Why, then, are people so afraid? Who cares if marketing companies know you buy generic corn flakes and regularly read the Drudge report?
Part of the reason people are afraid is because of their general fear and ignorance of computers. Note that nobody is scared of low-tech marketing firms. The other reason for the concern is probably simple boredom. People are so wealthy and spoiled that they having nothing better to do than whine about a right to privacy that doesn't exist. (It ain't in the Declaration of Independence -- trust me, I've checked.)
If you want to keep something private online, it's simply your responsibility to remain anonymous. Don't want others to know about your Porn, gambling or psychic friends addictions? Then don't give your name to these kinds of sites. Despite the Internet, the bottom line hasn't really changed in at least 4000 years. If you really want to keep a secret, keep your mouth -- and your keyboard -- shut.