Friday, March 27, 2009

One Man's War on Advertising

I can happily report that two more companies, Blue Kai and Media Math, have in the last few days modified their advertising systems to now use non-identifiable opt-out cookies. Hurrah.

I've received unofficial word that at least one other company is making a similar switch. One by one, most of the online advertising companies are realizing that identifiable opt out cookies are bad for consumers, and more importantly, really bad PR for them.

Expect a new version of TACO in the next few days, incorporating these new opt-out cookies.

As the weeks go on, I wouldn't be surprised to see that initial list of 17 bad advertisers shrink.... to just two: Microsoft and Yahoo. These firms are the largest of the offenders, are slow unwieldy corporations which are unable to turn on a dime, and in some cases, simply don't see why they should be forced to stop tracking users.

If we do get to a point where only these mega advertising titans are refusing to provide consumers with an anonymous way of opting out of tracking and targeting, progress may depend upon legislators showing a bit of interest in the topic.


In other news, Jim Harper @ CATO took another good-natured another whack at me this week.

Writing at the Tech Liberation Front, he stated that:
Chris is deeply focused on advertisers and his dislike of being tracked by advertisers. Though it is not absolute, I have a preference against tracking by anyone other than sites that I know, like, and trust. I’m no more worried about advertisers than any entity that would track my surfing - and there are many.

To say that I am solely focused on advertisers is unfair and incorrect. I wish to avoid being tracked by all parties, be they Facebook, the RIAA, online advertisers, or the US Government (remember, after all, the name of this blog). However, while the advertising industry has collectively provided consumers with a mechanism to opt-out of their more creepy practices (albeit one that is difficult to use), other would-be-watchers have not.

If Mr. Harper is aware of an opt-out cookie that I can load into my browser to opt myself out of the National Security Agency's illegal monitoring of domestic Internet traffic, I hope that he will let me know.

I will be the first to admit that privacy on the Internet sucks. I wish it were better. I wish we didn't have evil telecom companies who believe that they can monetize their customers' web browsing habits. I wish our government, even with the new President, respected the Fourth Amendment.

I am not claiming that my TACO add-on is perfect, or that it solves all of the privacy issues on the web. It is a specific technical solution for a particular policy problem. It is not a comprehensive solution to all the woes of web privacy -- it is just a way, I believe, for the little guy to reclaim a tiny little bit of that long forgotten right to be left alone.

Later on, Mr. Harper asserts that I am calling for new legislation:

With the right law in place, Chris appears to believe, “[t]he Federal Trade Commission and Congress would likely take an interest” when advertisers tried to skirt opt-out cookies, using other technologies to glean information about Web surfers’ interests.

Perhaps I was unclear in my previous post, but I do not believe that new legislation is required to go after advertisers who continue to engage in targeted advertising even after the user has opted out. The FTC has a clear legal mandate to go after those who engage in deceptive and unfair business practices. Advertisers who ignored their own opt-out cookies would seem to be engaging in an unfair and deceptive way. I would argue that the FTC already has all the authority it needs to go after such firms.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is always the hosts file for dealing with stubborn advertisers. That solves the problem of web bugs too.