Associating With the Accused

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prison_smallADOTAS – Specific Media, the largest privately owned online ad-serving and tracking network, was hit with a federal lawsuit on Aug. 18. The suit was filed under the pretense that the network failed to provide adequate notice to users around data collection and violated computer intrusion laws by secretly recreating cookies deleted by users.

Specific Media is the third major company to be slapped with a lawsuit of this kind. MTV was accused of using technology from popular analytics firm Quantcast, while Disney and Demand Media were sued for their relationship with Clearspring Technologies.

The technology used to recreate user cookies is nothing more than Adobe Flash. With a 98% penetration rate across household computers, nearly anyone that surfs the web is served flash display banners. Unlike standard HTTP cookies that users can remove by clearing their cache or history within the web browser, companies that stream high levels of content such as YouTube, Hulu and Pandora utilized Flash cookies to pre-load portions of songs or videos to ensure smooth playback.

With Flash cookies being stored in a different location then HTTP cookies and the need for Adobe’s online controls to correct be deleted, Specific Media and other media companies have the ability to recreate cookies deleted by users to continue tracking customers and serving them relevant ads.

Specific Media has not issued an official response, so I took this opportunity to speak to Steve Minichini, president of TargetCast tcm, to get a sense of how media shops are responding or should respond to these kinds of allegations.

“Specific Media has been a long-time partner delivering strong results consistently. However, we have a responsibility to ensure our clients are positioned well within the digital landscape and that their marketing message is of value to the consumer,” Minichini stated.

When asked about his opinion on Flash cookies, Minichini said, “Using this technology to recreate the HTTP cookie for tracking purposes is an issue.” He also placed this tactic on par with a very common online media tactic known as retargeting, saying, “Forced retargeting is something I’m very uncomfortable with.”

As any media shop knows, a client’s audience is its biggest asset and being associated with media tactics that leverage privacy issues is never a good thing. So should media planners pull budgets or pause campaigns with Specific Media?

The answer depends on performance. If you are seeing great results, continue to leverage the network while “Keeping a close eye on the situation and subsequently reduced all spending allocated toward Specific Media while these claims are investigated,” suggested Minichini, taking an approach his agency applied to its own clients.

Only time will tell whether Specific Media is guilty. Until then, media agencies should take this opportunity to ensure the highest quality and standards are applied when marketing their client online.

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