Opt In or Opt Out — That Is the Question at Online Privacy Debate

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privacy_smallADOTAS – Last night at Morris & King’s offices in NYC’s Flatiron district, a panel discussion on behavioral advertising and the possibility of “Do Not Track” legislation turned into an at-times feisty town hall debate as representatives from various parts of the industry — including tech journalist and startup investor Esther Dyson — offered their assessments of the situation.

Three of the four panelists called the state of online data privacy “dismal,” “terrible” or something along those lines, while Dave Norris, CEO of device fingerprinting service BlueCava, simply said it was “not great.”

All the panelists bemoaned the lack of consumer knowledge of behavioral advertising practices, but Mary Hodder, chair of the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium, said part of the problem was figuring out how much consumers need to be educated: “Users shouldn’t have to know everything.”

She commented she would like to see baseline regulation for data collection — the online data market isn’t a free market because those have at least the minimal level of regulation. “They have to adhere to something,” she said.
From a high level, the debate centered on consumer opt-out versus opt-in systems for targeting and data collection. Hodder proposed a consumer data ecosystem in which consumers use their data as commerce in purchasing content and possibly other services like couponing. Maintaining your data profile would be similar to managing an airline miles account.
However, Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of government relations at the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) expressed skepticism. Considering the tonnes of content browsers sift through, Jaffe suggested users would be overwhelmed and irritated by negotiating data premiums with nearly every content provider.
ANA is one member of the National Advertising Alliance, and Jaffe pledged that industry self-regulation via the Self-Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising and the oft-seen Forward I icon is the best way to ward off online privacy legislation. The trick was finding a balance between efficient online marketing and user control of data — opt out would seem to fit the bill.
That was certainly argued. “Opting out of targeted ads is not a consumer-friendly experience,” quipped Norris, who suggested that publishers should be the ones giving users the choice between opting into targeting and data collecting to view content or paying with (gasp) money to view it.
Also up for debate was the idea of collecting non-PII (personally identifiable information) just how anonymous is anonymous data? Hodder suggested that the targeting companies simply haven’t been creative in their methods: “Why does advertising have to be a stalking economy?”
“We need to make a distinction about who is using anonymous data to target ads versus those who want to cause harm,” Jaffe said, suggesting a consensus is needed on what data should be off-limits.
Most of the panelists — and the room in general — were of the opinion that a “Do Not Track” list is bad news.
“Do Not Track is a slogan, not a reality,” commented Jaffe. “It sounds very nice in theory but it’s not practical… But if the industry does nothing, consumers are going to push legislators into action.”
Working in DC, he admitted he was surprised about legislators’ lack of knowledge concerning data collecting and targeting. “They understand far too little to do the job right,” he said.

“DNT is unhelpful,” Hodder added. “It suppresses the value of data.”

But Norris had a more cynical view — DNT will be passed because it’s a political win, and an easy one at that.

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