Data Collectors Are Not Villains

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villainADOTAS – My favorite quote from the latest Wall Street Journal entry in the shrieking (and increasingly self-congratulatory) “What They Know” series:

“Previously, a handful of Internet and tracking firms, including Google, Yahoo, BlueKai, Lotame and eXelate, made such information available on their own sites. However, few consumers were aware.”

What’s the point of that second sentence? All I see is a lame accusation that these companies are making it difficult to get away from their clutches.

Granted, if people opt out of data collection, BlueKai, Lotame and company will have less to sell, but being publicly labeled data spies presumably would have a more negative effect on their business.

Oh wait, they kind of already have been called online spies by the WSJ — however, it seems their businesses aren’t slacking because its obvious to those in online marketing that the “What They Know” series is transparently drumming up paranoia to drive page views and newspaper sales.

What would be good enough for WSJ? Google has written plenty of blog posts on the subject and Yahoo just published an look at consumer privacy controls as part of an extensive examination of Right Media quality control.

Would television commercials do the trick for WSJ’s Internet privacy bloodhound gang? Door-to-door demonstrations of how to opt out?

What I find irritating about most media coverage of this space is the attempt to turn data collectors into villains when their practices are completely legal and they’ve offered olive branches to consumers. There are bad apples in every bunch, but the “What They Know” series’ only real revelation has been a programming screwup at Facebook.

Could data collectors and targeting companies do more to promote transparency? Of course, and it looks like they’re going to have to with the Federal Trade Commission recommending a “Do Not Track” list.

But why is the onus completely on the data collectors? What is the browser’s responsibility in understanding the workings of data collection on the Internet? There are many tools currently available to concerned browsers for curbing tracking, and the Open Data Partnership will likely improve the options.

I’ve long argued that the tradeoff for all those nice services you get on the Internet is that advertisers get to try to sell you stuff by guessing what you like based on your browsing history.

I don’t know if I can sum it up better than DScriber: “If you didn’t know that as you surf the Internet, companies may be collecting all sorts of information about you, shame on you.”

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