in Marketing & Media

A Note About Tracking Cookies

(Photo Credit: gradesi)

(Photo Credit: gradesi)

The Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital recently served me an unexpected banner across the top of the blog’s entry page titled “A note about tracking cookies.” It said:

Some of the advertisers and Web analytics firms used on this site may place ‘tracking cookies’ on your computer. We are telling you about them right upfront, and we want you to know how to get rid of these tracking cookies if you like. Read more. This notice is intended to appear only the first time you visit the site on any computer.

This is the first time I’m aware of a mainstream ad-supported publisher telling me “upfront” that it is placing tracking cookies on my computer. Considering cookies are like oxygen to online media and advertising, I was taken off guard.

If you had clicked to read more, you would be directed to a page that says:

Tracking cookies are small text files that can tell such companies what you are doing online, even though they usually don’t record your name or other personally identifiable information. These cookies are used by these companies to try and match ads to a user’s interests. They are used all over the Web, but in most cases, their presence is only disclosed deep inside privacy policies.

Then, the cookie removal instructions and discontent with industry privacy policy:

We want you to know how to get rid of these tracking cookies if you like. Here are links to pages where you can opt out of the cookies set by our ad-placement contractor and our analytics contractor… We’d prefer a totally opt-in system, but, as far as we know, the ad industry doesn’t have a practical one as of now.

To be sure, cookies aren’t necessarily bad. In fact, they do a lot of good. But they carry significant and legitimate privacy concerns. They don’t always accurately identify what they purport to, and can be used for security attacks.

And that’s why it makes sense that All Things Digital would openly disclose usage of tracking cookies to its readers, and promote opting out as a choice. Doing so builds trust with one of their most valuable stakeholders: readers.

The intent was good and I applaud that. But the practicality and validity of this disclosure is questionable. To start, the banner is alarming. It suggests something inappropriate, controversial or harmful is going on. If that’s true, then this is an important disclosure, and that banner should remain at all times (if for no other reason than to overcome banner blindness).

Third, the disclosure page simply explains what tracking cookies are, how to get rid of them and the publisher’s desire for opt-in rules. But given the alarming tone, it presented a decidedly mixed conclusion over the goodness or badness of tracking cookies. Consequently, a good intention made this reader more confused. It made me ask: what is the full motivation and story behind the story? And what about the 100-plus other sites I visit each day?

What about them? Perhaps prompting me to ask that question is the point. Fellow Spin columnist Dave Morgan, founder of ad networks Real Media and Tacoda, recently wrote about the online media sector:

There is no question that many of our companies are vulnerable in this area. A number of companies try to be good actors, but don’t pay enough attention to protecting privacy to realize that they are doing a bad job giving appropriate notice and choice to their users concerning data capture on their sites. We also have a number of companies out there that are just plain bad actors, who hide behind those that are ignorant. And, finally, we have a number of folks out there with a mindset that just because we can offer ‘better’ services by capturing user data, and just because many younger users don’t seem to worry too much about privacy, we don’t have a problem. We do have a problem. It is about to move beyond our control.

Yes, the online media industry so far has failed miserably in adopting strong policies of education, disclosure, transparency and consumer privacy. While correcting the problem starts with the leadership of a few pioneers like All Things Digital, meaningful impact requires industrywide cooperation. Without a larger movement, more public confusion, distrust and backlash are inevitable. Everyone loses, including All Things Digital and the minority that demonstrated good intent early on.

The endgame: A self-enforcing industry needs full industry cooperation. It also needs a real sheriff with meaningful authority, firepower and handcuffs. So who’s going to be that sheriff? So far, nobody’s stepping up, except for some ambitious bureaucrats in Washington. We may be amidst an economic crisis, but that’s not stopping federal regulators from moving in.

To all the publishers out there: What are you really doing about privacy?

(This also was my latest MediaPost column.)

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]