The Opt-In Revolution Has an Asset


ADOTAS – I met tech journalist and investor (the term “Internet guru” jumps to mind before the gag reflex goes off) Esther Dyson at a privacy debate hosted by Morris & King in April that focused on potential “Do Not Track” legislation. Although she was just in the audience, she might as well have been on the panel; the attendees were hanging on her every word as she described a consumer opt-in system for online data sharing.

Your consumer data is extremely valuable to advertisers, and it’s your credit card to pay for a buffet of scrumptious Internet content. On a very basic level, Dyson was advocating for a marketplace where consumers could trade their data to publishers for content. The publishers sell the data to various third parties and the information ends up being used to target ads to those consumers. The circle of (Internet) life.

So shouldn’t the consumer be in the driver’s seat? Shouldn’t he or she manage who gets what? Shouldn’t he or she even have the ability to profit from the data like through Personal?

As Dyson opines in a Slate article that expands on her points from the debate, “Most pundits on both sides—privacy advocates and marketers—don’t realize that rather than protecting consumers or hiding from them, companies should be bringing them into the game.”

To an extent consumers are in control in the data game — they can easily manage cookies and employ increasingly prevalent opt-out services. But Dyson dissects the behavioral advertising status quo, the one the pro-self regulation groups are defending. In the industry, we understand it’s a vocal minority that’s screaming about online privacy; unfortunately complaints are often sensationalized by media outlets trying to lure in readers (cough, Wall Street Journal).

Which reminds me of an exposé on retargeting from The New York Times a while back. As is the cliché format for writing such a piece for an old-school publication, the article begins with an anecdote of an everyday American running into the issue du jour: Julie notices display ads from a site she recently visited are “following” her as she surfs the web.

The ad industry people call it retargeting! Run, don’t walk, to the bomb shelter!

Julie doesn’t panic — she pretty much says, “Once I figured out what was going on, I was OK.” Kinda anti-climatic. It didn’t help that the story treated retargeting like it’s new technology when it has been around for a decade.

Retargeting is a good gateway into the behavioral advertising realm as a consumer doesn’t have to be a genius to understand how it works. Long before I started writing about the digital ad space, I noticed banners appearing for retail sites I had recently perused. I assumed a cookie had been dropped and they were trying to lure me back.

I didn’t think it was creepy; I thought it was clever. And annoying, especially if I had purchased the product or services that the company was retargeting. But to make it stop, I knew I could just dump my cookies.

If I click on the Forward-I icon appearing on an increasing number of behaviorally targeted ads, I can manage who gets my data. Major publishers like Google and Yahoo have very straightforward and easy-to-find control centers for opting-out. The control is there, I just have to find it.

This is the heart of the unspoken agreement between consumers, publishers, advertisers and the tech companies that facilitate this silent arrangement — default privacy settings=share everything (anonymously). Only thing is, forces are colliding to bring the arrangement into the light — especially a federal government that needs an easy win since it’s facing a mountain-side of lose-lose situations.

One problem with opt-out systems and a potential federal do-not-track list is that people that opt out are essentially getting a free ride when everyone else agrees to the toll. Opt-out advocates argue that this will be such a small segment that it won’t matter, but it’s hard not to feel like some spoiled people are cheating the system — Internet content is not free.

And then there’s the issue of regulation, because the Internet is chock full of schemers and scammers — can you really trust the industry to police its own? What exactly happens to offenders — slap on the wrist? Name sent to the government, which then… does what?

In other words, the opt-out OBA solution is flawed, but the NAA will tell it’s the best one we got. People like Dyson disagree and suggest turning the model on its head by making consumers the gatekeepers. “I believe that successful companies will turn personal data into an asset by giving it back to their customers in an enhanced form,” she writes on Slate.

In addition, an opt-in system would make it clearer when companies are up to no good, i.e., using consumer data without permission. What to do with offenders is another can of worms.

But Dyson also highlights the chief problem — no one knows what kind of mechanism can power the consumer opt-in model.

Well, what about device fingerprinting?

The leader in this field seems to BlueCava, a company I’ve written about and whose executives I’ve interviewed numerous times. BlueCava’s technology uses a plethora of signals to recognize your device, even if you ditch the cookies. It pretty much gives your device a an ID; so far BlueCava has tagged tens of millions of devices (PCs, smartphones, tablets) and it’s extremely easy to opt out your data.

In one of its “What They Know” articles, WSJ went off on the privacy ramifications of device fingerprinting but they didn’t investigate the consumer empowerment angle. Identification opens doors, and with a device ID consumers could manage how their data is used.

Combine device fingerprinting with an opt-in model, and the data transaction doesn’t have to be unspoken or buried. It’s right upfront — you visit a website; website gives you a taste, but says if you want full access, you’re going to have to share this and that.

Eureka — transparency now. No tracking cookies needed (for advertising purposes, and one could argue internal analytics as well). The opt-in mechanism is there, the behavioral advertising status quo could upended. The status quo is not necessarily the the best, feasible option.

Because there’s gotta be downsides to opt-in besides implementation — and that’s what a comments section is for.


  1. While I like Bluecava’s fingerprint approach, one could accomplish the same thing with a SSL site. This way an opt-in user could access a secured site from anywhere in the “cloud” without being locked to one “trusted” devise.

  2. Gavin, you wrote:

    “One problem with opt-out systems and a potential federal do-not-track list is that people that opt out are essentially getting a free ride when everyone else agrees to the toll. Opt-out advocates argue that this will be such a small segment that it won’t matter, but it’s hard not to feel like some spoiled people are cheating the system — Internet content is not free.”

    I am neither here nor, there in regards to tracking. It is other type malfeasance that has already has come to the surface, like the banning IP addresses, user access and comment blocking, censorship, etc that gets my goat up!

    But ….

    Since when has the thought of a “toll” being introduced for viewing and commenting on content – for content that has always, been free?

    A few Publisher have now gone ahead & have installed ‘pay-walls’ for their content (or, sections of it), that those who want to read such, simply pay the fee and then gain that access.

    I already resent the fact that the threat of NOT opting in or, when deleting cookies in effect (as already exists, automatically bars your current access to many a site), will then ENSURE that general access to all content, will not be granted.

    Isn’t this ‘hand over fist’ type operation (meaning, no cookies enactment – then, no access, as described), not already in place?

    You tell me?

    • @MajorWebUser: Very interesting point, thank you.

      @Ross: Yeah, I think you’re right to an extent, but I don’t consider it unfair. There’s always some kind of value exchange with content — at one time, Jonny’s blog may have seemed to be “free,” but he granted everyone access to his writings in the hope they would recommend it to their friends and drive traffic, increase notoriety, etc. The price for viewing then was a potential endorsement. But as media companies have tossed all their content online, browsers have shown an unwillingness to pay cash and straightforward display advertising fails to pay the bills, the price for viewing content has gone up. Way, way up.

      Consider that initially news outlets posted content on their websites as an extension of their “traditional services” (print pubs, TV shows) for the few people that wanted to wait for stories to load at 55.1 kbps. (The value exchange then was arguably loyalty.) Now the majority of people get their news instantly via the Internet — it’s been pretty obvious for some time these outlets have to monetize.

      My main issue is with the “hand over fist” treatment itself — the lack of transparency that makes browsers believe the majority of web content is free. To some extent publishers have pulled one over (or at least think they have) on the majority of visitors. As you explained, those that recognize what’s going on and try to do something about it get squeezed out.

      The opt-in system puts the value exchange front and center. It doesn’t feel like a racket anymore. But we must agree there is a price to view most content — something of value must be exchanged.

      There’s still plenty of “free” content out there — Tumblr is chock full of good stuff, but eventually they’ll run out of venture capital and need to monetize, most likely by using data for targeting purposes. But forums and ad-free blogs are all over the place. Just don’t expect to read the NYTimes’ top story without paying a fee.

  3. The privacy icon is certainly flawed and I think the opt-in route is worth exploring further. I’ve been hearing a lot about AdKeeper in recent months. From what I’ve read, AdKeeper allows consumers to essentially opt-IN to what ads they prefer to save for later. Interesting concept and a lot of major advertisers are on board. Much less scary than having to opt-out (and then rinse and repeat each time you clear your cookies). Seems like a no-brainer to me.

  4. Fully agree that opt-out is a flawed solution to a much more complex issue and that consumers need a way to wrangle the control of their data away from the major sites and networks.

    The Human Information Project ( is, like AdKeeper, and interesting new approach that allows for user tracking by sites and advertisers but which keeps the data in the hands of the user on their own local device. Users can then view, modify and delete the data as they please (fully transparency) and sites and advertisers can still pick it up when they see the user again via a simple API. Still in beta but an interesting approach to a compounding problem.

  5. Great reply Gavin and certainly more ‘down to earth’ in much of what you have said. And it is appreciated.

    I’m sure now, that many would feel that it would have been far better for the publisher industry to have been more transparent from the outset, I feel. Instead of the ongoing confusing of people and assuming them all to be complete ‘dumb-asses’, so to speak.

    And I feel this same approach has been made on the technology front where marketers have also become completely confused, in these early days.

    I know there are reasons as such, but it now comes back to bite some back-sides big-time, as a result of the doing so.

    This article calls for or, urges a need for some simple rationalisation, maybe? And the sooner the better.

    The writer says in part:

    “We’ve made integration the marketer’s problem to solve. If we’re supposed to be in the marketing services business, I’d argue this isn’t the way to offer our clients the best service. We need to help them to stop the insanity!”

    He goes on to say:

    “Marketing technology consolidation is coming — and not just because the bankers proclaim it to the benefit of their bottom line. Marketers are demanding it, and our industry needs to meet that challenge so that the advertising technologies poised to shape the future of our industry can fulfill their true potential.”

    It is now the time to stop this confusing of both marketers AND consumers..time to become totally transparent and prove that there’s a “win-win-win” for all – – including the very consumers who (after-all), it’s all being centered around and fully dependent on.

    Thanks again.


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