Data and Privacy Crossroads at the End of 2010

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crossroadsADOTAS – In 1978 Bob Seger cried that he felt like a number, but he yelled back, “I’m not a number/Dammit, I’m a man!” In 1998 Tim Kasher of Cursive sounded far more defeated when singing “I once believe I had a name/but my name was changed to the numbers on my resume” on “A Little Song and Dance.”

And now as 2010 draws to a close, Andrew Munchbach writes a column for BGR titled, “Hello, my name is: 9649e796e8b23900dc9629a18f2d47306430e62f.” I believe you can call him “9 to f” for short.

No, the world hasn’t turned into “THX 1138” (though I’m all about the shaved female head) — Munchbach, whose not ashamed to point out he’s a 27-year-old male living in Boston, is reacting to the uproar over The Wall Street Journal’s recent findings that a high percentage of mobile apps are sending out data such as user age, gender and app usage to third parties.

Third parties, you say? Not those horrible, horrible ad networks? Yes, kids — ad networks and other creep crawlies like mobile analytics firms. You should disconnect the Internet and put on your tin foil hat immediately.

Munchbach is not all that concerned about advertisers getting his data because he knows it doesn’t go toward some conspiracy to control his life — it goes toward targeted ads.

“If this means, as a guy in my late-twenties living in Massachusetts, I see ads for engagement rings from Newbury Street boutiques instead of adverts for Depends adult incontinence diapers, so be it, he writes. “If I were overly concerned about strangers not knowing my age, gender, and location, I probably would avoid going out in public — since all three of these things are pretty easy to discern and there are plenty of people outside my home that I do not know.”

I’m all right with apps sending that info to third parties as well — as long as I say it’s OK. As long as I have an idea what information that app is sharing. And that was the issue with WSJ’s exposure of mobile apps sharing data — they were doing it without the knowledge of or permission from the user.

It’s not right that advertising technology firms, publishers and mobile app developers have considered themselves entitled to buy and sell collected data without user permission. Online and mobile data selling has been an unspoken agreement content provider and devourer — here’s free articles, I’m just gonna copy down where you been and follow you a bit — but it seems like most browsers didn’t know they’d made such a deal.

So does that make me a big advocate for the Federal Trade Commission’s proposed “Do Not Track” list? Not a chance — after explaining how various ad tech firms track and then use your data for targeting, Ben Kunz at Bloomberg Businessweek lays out a simple yet highly poignant case against “Do Not Track”:

“1. It won’t stop online ads. While Do Not Call lists kept telemarketers at bay, you’ll still see tons of banners and videos everywhere online. They’ll simply be less relevant.

2. Do Not Track will send billions of dollars to the big online publishers, hurting the little sites you might find most interesting.”

Now I’ve stated before I’m in the camp that targeted advertising — behavioral, social, what-have-you — is necessary to keep Internet and mobile content free. A “do not track” list ends up being a “screw you” to most publishers — the people that jump on the list can peruse freely on sites that use various types of targeted advertising to support their “free” content.

On home pages and such, this isn’t much of a loss as most of the advertising is sold by the publisher sales team — major advertisers want to pull something special on a popular homepage. The bigger the publisher, the bigger the advertiser. Jonny’s tiny blog with “Star Wars” fan fiction and monthly 10,000 uniques is not going to grab the same advertisers as NYTimes.com.

But even with NYTimes.com, DNT would stick publishers with low, low, low CPMs on so-called remnant or nonpremium inventory — the smaller the pub, the lower the CPM. This opens the floodgates to crappy advertising (remember all those Flash banners you used to love on MySpace?) which run rampant when CPMs are mere pennies.

Publishers could try the PBS model — begging — and say “We need advertisers to target you in order to keep this content free, so don’t join the DNT list!” But what percentage of viewers actually donate to PBS? What percentage of browsers are going to take pity on publishers?

This is the crossroads we are at as 2010 comes to a close: consumers need to be given a choice upfront on how their data is used, fully understanding that they pay for the content they view/use/enjoy with that data. To me, the onus falls on publishers and app developers to make that fact clear — and either deny content to those that don’t play along or charge them in another way.

But I also believe the industry needs to give up on cookies for behavioral targeting — they are still great for internal analytics. Device identifying software such as BlueCava or UDIDs would seem far more efficient for behavioral targeting.

And Bob Seger is right — you’re not a number. Andrew Munchbach is not “9649e796e8b23900dc9629a18f2d47306430e62f” — that is his device. The advertising profile will be based on assumptions spit out by an algorithm that crunches various streams of data. It’s a cold, inhuman system, just like your device is simply an assemblage of circuitry. You are not your device, and that profile is at best a pale simulacrum of you.

But advertisers want to use that profile to serve you more relevant ads? Game on — see you in 2011.

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